SHOW INTRO – JENN
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’ve got two classics — Rin Chupeco talks about her love for The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, and Grady Hendrix digs into Ulysses by James Joyce.
Raised in Manila, Philippines, Rin Chupeco has been a technical writer and travel blogger, and now makes things up for a living. Her YA books include The Girl from the Well and The Bone Witch series, which includes The Bone Witch and The Heart Forger, and follow the adventures of a young witch named Tea who has the power to raise the dead.
My name is Rin Chupeco and the Count of Monte Cristo is my recommended.
The Count of Monte Cristo is basically about this guy named Edmond Dantes who, at first glance, appears to have everything. He has a very lovely fiance and he’s about to be the captain of his own ship. But the problem is there are three guys who are envious and coveted all these things that he has, so they all conspired in a lot of different ways to eventually have him imprisoned on an island. And from there, he actually finds a mentor in the form of a fellow prisoner, called Abbe Faria, and he eventually teaches him that there’s a treasure hidden in one of the islands, called Monte Cristo, and he’s able to, eventually, escape, get that treasure, and then come back to seek revenge on everybody who’s put him there in the first place.
It’s basically a swashbuckling adventure full of revenge, and betrayal, and a lot of drama, which is what I like most of all.
I was a very early reader, and I think it was around when I was about 10 years old. And during that time, there wasn’t really young adult as a genre in most bookstores, so after the usual Nancy Drew and Babysitters Club, I started foraging for more adult books, and that was actually one of the books I’ve encountered and was actually recommended to me by an older uncle who knows how much I like to read, and this was his challenge to me.
So, I picked it up and I really loved it, because I’m a blood thirsty reader who likes all these complicated plot twists, and revenge, and all these surprises and drama, like I mentioned before, and what really got me in the first place was the whole unfairness of it all. He was eventually thrown into prison for something that he didn’t do, and growing up in the Philippines where these sort of things are common in a way, I could actually relate a lot to him. I read about it, and then I look around and think, “Yeah, maybe this author’s being …” This is something that he’s written, that I’ve looked around and realized, hey, something like that can happen. It happens a lot in the Philippines. And it was my first realization that people in the West, countries in the West, aren’t all that different from here after all, when things like that can happen.
I was 10 years old, so there were obviously a lot of things in the book that I didn’t really understand at first after reading it the first couple of times, but I really loved the book. As I said before, it’s the swashbuckling that got to me, but as I grew older, some of the scenes started … I started thinking a little bit more about the other scenes in the book, like the sense of forgiveness, for example, because there’s a lot of revenge in the book, and a lot of characters react to this revenge in different ways.
Obviously, Edmond Dantes is out for blood, and he actually successfully takes down two of his enemies, and then, in the process, realizes that even as he’s seeking revenge he also winds up harming a lot of other innocents, like there was the wife of his enemy who poisoned herself in the end because of all the stuff that her husband did. And in the end, she also wound up poisoning her son, and that was that turning point in the book where Edmond Dantes thinks, “Oh no, what did I do? This isn’t what I had in mind when I was planning my revenge.”
So, it’s these things that you don’t really appreciate when you’re 10 years old, but you appreciate the older you get, like when you’re 13 you start thinking about it, and then when you’re 16 … And the more times you read, the more you understand the themes and the idea that it’s more than just a book about revenge, it’s also a book about learning to find forgiveness.
Towards the end, I think that I really sympathize the most with Haydee, who is, technically, the Count of Monte Cristo’s “slave,” who he buys from Constantinople, I think, and he uses her as part of his revenge plan because, it turns out, one of the guys, the guy who stole his girl, actually betrayed Haydee’s father and sold her and her mother into slavery. So, that was a really big moment, when she stands up and denounces the guy, and everything after that leads to his downfall.
I mentioned forgiveness a while back, and in thinking about it, it’s really strange, because Haydee is the character with the least amount of agency, ’cause she’s really content to just let Edmond Dantes dictate her life and everything, but when it comes to forgiveness, she’s the most unforgiving one of the bunch, and I think that says a lot about her character, that there’s more to her than just being this really delicate flower that people see and, all throughout the first revelation about her character is that she’s been in love with Edmond Dantes all along. So, I do like my romance, and while the expected romance most people come in thinking is between Edmond Dantes and his former fiance, Mercedes, but what really appealed to me in the end was the devotion between Haydee and the Count of Monte Cristo.
Despite the fact that she has so little time in the book, she really stands out regardless, and I really like that. It says something about her character, I think, despite the fact that she’s not in a lot of scenes.
With my first book series, which is The Girl From The Well, and the next one that came after that, which is The Bone Witch trilogy, there’s very similar scenes there, and I’ve said it in the past, and whenever I describe those books I say that it’s always about teen girls their resistance to the world, telling them that, “You’re not gonna break me, you’re not gonna move me,” and in a way, I think that’s very common with the path of Edmond Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo, mainly because he was very immovable in his own way, where once he’s decided that he wants to seek vengeance, that’s about the only thing he’s really concentrated on, and with my female characters, it’s pretty much the same way.
The Girl From The Well is really all about a ghost who was murdered in her teens and now she’s pretty much dedicated to killing every murderer that she meets, so there’s that single mindedness that’s a bit similar. And the same with Tea, who is the heroine in my latest book series, which is The Bone Witch, where she’s the anti-heroine of the series, where everybody thinks she’s the bad guy from doing one thing, and when it comes down to it, all she really wants is to save her friends and take her revenge against the society that’s failed her.
So, that whole theme of finding vengeance, and also, in a way, trying to find forgiveness is really integral to a lot of the things that I write.
There was a point where I used to read it three times a year or something. It’s usually when I run out of books, and that happens a lot, ’cause I’m a very quick reader and I can go through a book in a couple of hours, maybe. So, when I run out of books, and I get bored, and I don’t really have money to get a new book until maybe a couple more weeks, I usually go back. I refer to my favorites again and The Count of Monte Cristo is always the first one I reach for.
It really appeals to me in almost every way. The plotting was intense and it was just at that sort of pacing that I really like where nothing boring happens in the book, there’s always something that’s going on. So, you kind of read it and it’s an interesting book. There’s really no boring stage in it that I can think of ’cause there’s always something happening and there’s always somebody about to get their comeuppance, and stuff like that, which is something that I’ve always loved in books.
It’s a heavy enough book that that’s not something you’d normally suggest to 10 year olds, but I was always a weird girl. I would recommend it to 10 year olds who’d like something really … They’re willing to invest in for a few more years, until they understand every theme that the book’s trying to convey. But I would definitely recommend this book ’cause it’s my favorite book of all time. There’s a copy of it right now in front of me.
When you told me about this podcast, the first thing I did was get it and reread it again.
Thanks again to Rin Chupeco for joining us and recommending The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. The Heart Forger, published by Sourcebooks Fire, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at RinChupeco.
Grady Hendrix is a former journalist and current novelist. He is the author of Horrorstör, the only novel about a haunted Scandinavian furniture store you’ll ever need, which was selected by NPR as one of the best books of 2014, has been translated into 14 languages, and is being turned into a television show. His next novel, We Sold Our Souls, is a heavy metal take on the Faust legend.
My name is Grady Hendrix, and Ulysses by James Joyce is, God help us, my recommended read
Ulysses is quite literally just the story of two dudes and one woman hanging out in Dublin on June 16th, 1904. That’s it. There’s nothing else to it. But I first came across Ulysses, I read Ulysses for the first time the way everyone should. I did it my very first year in university, and I did it to impress a girl. I went for about a year to this college in Vermont called Bennington before I realized that Bennington was a scary and odd place, and wound up transferring to NYU.
But that first year I met this girl. And sort of still had a girlfriend back home in South Carolina. But this girl, she was like a goth, and she was a chain smoker and she listened to Sisters of Mercy, who I’d never heard of. And she just seemed incredibly cool. And she was prone to making statements like, “Oh. Well, everyone should’ve read Ulysses by this point in their life. And Ulysses is my favorite book. Sometimes I just curl up with it some afternoons and fall in.” I mean, it’s exactly the kind of stuff that a freshman college student from South Carolina is going to be particularly vulnerable to, that and heroin.
And so I started reading it because I thought it would impress her.
And then she was impressed. We actually hooked up. And that story has a tragic ending. She dumped me really unceremoniously and I was kind of like, “Well, I read Ulysses for you, you jerk.” But we weren’t together very long, not even as long as it took me to read Ulysses. And actually, I have to say, I will always owe her for making me read that book because when I came to NYU, I was in this independent study program called Gallatin, and you sort of picked what you wanted to study, and they’d assign you a professor who was kind of your mentor for that class. Or you’d take classes from the different schools. And I was like, well, I want to do something fancy. And my advisor was talking to me. It turned out that she asked me what books I liked to read and I said, “Oh. My favorite book is Ulysses.”
And it turned out that a friend of hers had written, was the coauthor of the Gifford and Seidman annotations to Ulysses. And so before I could say, “Please, no. Help,” she had signed me up in this independent study with Bob Seidman. And for about three years, I’d meet Bob about once and month and we’d go over a chapter.
And I really just, I don’t know if it’s nostalgia because I read it almost all during my entire university years and in New York, or if it was the first time I’d really engaged with a book this deeply and sort of over deeply, or it was the first time I’d been around an adult who took books seriously because they were his life, but not over seriously. I mean, this was a job to him, writing these annotations. It just really made this huge impact on me. And reading Ulysses is like getting hit in the side of the head with Ulysses. It leaves a mark.
One of the weird things, and I didn’t even realize I was doing this until someone pointed it out to me, is that I have this horrible tic, or habit, or something people call it their style, where I love for things to get very sort of hallucinatory, like very much like plain old scenes, or actions, or moments, or set pieces, that get sort of this feverish haze to them so that everything feels a little drugged out or just sort of a feverish and really intense. And that’s probably something. I know I stole that a bit from Ramsey Campbell. And I know I stole that a bit from Ulysses. And then the other thing I do, which is a terrible habit, it lists. I love lists. Oh my God. A paragraph that’s list, I will just write those until the cows come home.
And it actually wasn’t until I knew I was doing this podcast and pulled down Ulysses, and I was flipping through it because I wanted to sound smart, I was like, “Oh my God. I stole doing lists from Ulysses,” which makes me sound smart, but also makes me sound really, really like I don’t have any good ideas of my own.
I kind of feel like Ulysses is one of those books that everyone should read once. This world is full of sissies who are too chicken to ever make it past the easy stuff with reading. And I love the easy stuff, trust me. I’ll read a Jack Reacher novel at the drop of a hat and go to the mat defending it. I wrote a book about 70s and 80s horror paperbacks. I read that stuff all the time. But I also feel like, dude, do a little exercise from time to time. If you love reading, you kind of owe it to yourself to try Ulysses. Do Dubliners and then do Ulysses. It’s one of those books that’s not like any other book because it so punches you out of your comfort zone. It’s kind of like reaching for something on the high shelf, or doing that extra set of reps if you’re a gym person, which I’m not. But I’ve heard they do that. The one that sort of makes your arms shake and your legs shake. It’s like it pushes you in strains your brain in a way nothing else will.
And I have to say, it’s really, really funny. Ulysses is a comedy from start to finish. Joyce wanted to write a comedy. He’s very upfront about it. And you won’t find a book with more fart jokes than Ulysses, I don’t think.
He wanted to take this Greek world of heroes and quests and cyclops and sailing ships and adventures and say, “Well, yes.” And also, you can use that same epic heroic language to talk about pooping and masturbating and getting drunk and making an ass out of yourself in public, making banal chitchat at a funeral. Everyone’s been there.
I’ve, over the years, come up with my advice to people who want to read Ulysses because it’s like a six point plan. The first thing I say to people who want to read Ulysses is, “Just relax. You’re going to miss stuff. It’s okay to miss things.” You’re going to miss a lot of things, like there’s references in here that are really obscure that require knowing a couple of different languages. They require being really deep on the Catholic Church, that require knowing stuff about 1916 England and Ireland and Scotland and Wales that no one knows anymore, and you’re going to miss it, and it’s okay. There’s a whole lot more.
Keep the big picture in mind. Don’t get hung up on the little stuff. And the second thing I say to people is, “You’re a shark. Reading Ulysses, you’re a shark. You just keep moving forward.” This is like drinking a waterfall. It’s way too much. And what you want to get is the overall impression, not the individual details. Just keep going. And then the third thing I would say to people is, “There’s no such things as spoilers with Ulysses.” Go out and not to pimp for Bob Seidman, but buy a copy of the Gifford and Seidman annotations. They break the book down chapter by chapter, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, word by word, so when you hit stuff you don’t understand, you can just look it up read quick and move on.
It’s kind of like if you’re driving in mud, the annotations is the board you put beneath the wheel of your Jeep to get unstuck and keep moving forward because always keep moving forward. And then the other things is, it’s totally okay to skip. There are some chapters in Ulysses that are impenetrable, and skim it, or skip it, or just do it real fast because there’s another chapter after it that will be more to your liking. It’s okay. There’s not a test later.
And then you have to remember the final two things about this book is, one is that Joyce wasn’t living in Dublin when he wrote it. He hadn’t lived in Dublin in years. And all Ulysses is, is his attempt to take one day in Dublin in 1904 and remember it perfectly, all the streets, all the feelings, all the people, all the shops, all the foods, all the advertising jingles.
The world can burn down and someone a million years from now will pick up Ulysses, and they could reconstruct that one June day in Dublin in 1904 perfectly. That’s what he wanted.
And then the last thing is, it’s a really funny book. You’ve got to think a little differently and rewire your brain a little differently to get the jokes, but by a chapter or two you’ve either gotten on Joyce’s wavelength, or you’ve just given up in disgust and you think I’m a jerk. But this is a book about taking the whole heroic style of the Odyssey and the Iliad and using it to write the whole heroic story of some dudes strolling around Dublin and getting some drinks and skipping out on work and having asinine conversations and going to a funeral and getting drunk together, and all the things that means because you don’t have to be this great hero to have an adventure. Every day is an adventure. Everyone is a hero. And it can be ridiculous to look at yourself in that light. But it can also be kind of sublime and kind of beautiful.
Thanks again to Grady Hendrix for joining us and recommending Ulysses by James Joyce. His novel We Sold Our Souls, published by Quirk, will be available wherever books are sold on September 18 of 2018. You can follow him on Twitter at grady_hendrix.
OUTRO 1 – JENN
Next week on Recommended, one writer muses about nonfiction:
It was the first book-length piece I think I read that ran on primarily the gasoline of a writer’s style.
I was still in the process of discovering and trying to demarcate the edges of what creative non-fiction was. That’s such a weird genre name and I think in a lot of ways it’s really unfortunate because fiction has all these really sexy signifiers, it’s short shorts or flash fiction, and on the other side I think we found people were wearing monocles and drinking scotch. It’s always literary essay, or personal essay, or meditation, or creative non-fiction, which sounds like we are not having a third as much fun as people on the other side of the line.
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