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    The Book Pages: What it was like as the ‘Finnegans Wake’ group read the final page
    • October 6, 2023

    They’d worked for 28 years to get to this moment. I didn’t want to screw it up.

    Earlier this week, I interviewed Gerry Fialka about the Venice-Wake Book Group, which he founded in 1995 and has led for nearly three decades. Its goal has been to read a single book, James Joyce’s ridiculously challenging “Finnegans Wake” (and Fialka also brings in discussion of theorist Marshall McLuhan, too).

    On this past Tuesday, the group was going to be reading the final page and I’d been graciously invited by Fialka and book club member Peter Coogan, who’d first informed me about the long-running meeting.

    For context, in 1995, the top songs on the Billboard charts were Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and TLC’s “Waterfalls”; the top-grossing movies were “Batman Forever” and “Apollo 13” (with “Toy Story” in third place!); and the No. 1 and 2 TV shows were “ER” and “Seinfeld.” The biggest-selling books? John Grisham’s “The Rainmaker” and Michael Crichton’s “The Lost World” (and another from that year, Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass,” is mentioned below in the Q&A by author Elana K. Arnold).

    Gerry Fialka has run a book club devoted to reading James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” (Photo credit (L-R) David Healey / Penguin /Associated Press)

    Now, after 28 years, the members were finally finishing “The Wake,” as they call it. Fialka asked if I’d participate in the group reading of its final page – a big moment to share, I thought. (Fialka delightfully deflected attempts to bring too much attention to the occasion.)

    I’d joined the event a few minutes early, so I’d been treated to a bit of pre-meeting small talk – an unpretentious conversation about the various early examples of the novel around the world (in case you thought they compared Netflix queues or Fitbit tips) – before Fialka gently wrangled the meeting to order.

    After taking a deep breath and reciting a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem to warm up, we started reading the last page. We each took two lines apiece, and then because the last sentence of the book circles back to begin the opening line – “It’s a cyclical book,” says Fialka. “It never ends.” – we continued to the first page where it was soon my turn again to read a few lines.

    That’s when I saw it – an etymological eruption of one of Joyce’s thundering 100-letter words: “Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!”

    I was going to have to read that. How, I wondered as my turn got closer, was I supposed to pronounce such a thing? Moreover, how would I pronounce it to a Zoomful of dedicated readers who had been studying this book since Val Kilmer was Batman and Y2K was still a thing?

    Well, I figured, I could just try. So I did.

    With all the grace of someone walking barefoot across a scalding-hot parking lot, I stumbled over letters, my mouth making sounds like a defective didgeridoo. But I didgeridid it.

    Gerry Fialka has run a book club devoted to reading James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” (Photo by Erik Pedersen / Courtesy of Duncan Echelson)

    And nobody complained or rolled their eyes or grumbled that I had cheated by joining the Joyce marathon 10 steps from the finish line. The 18 participants on this momentous evening – who Zoomed in from as far away as Brazil – were as welcoming and supportive as anyone could hope for. They didn’t even mind that I started cooking dinner during the discussion.

    Then as the talk wore down, one of the group, William Kennedy, I believe, surprised everyone as he broke into song, performing the Irish-American composition, “Finnegan’s Wake,” that inspired the title of Joyce’s book. It was a lovely and moving way to mark the occasion.

    As goodbyes were said and Zoom windows began to close – with the expectation they’d be getting together again the next month to begin anew – I thought about a question someone had asked Fialka: Would he consider changing the book club’s format – generally, a single page per meeting followed by an hour or two of discussion – so it wouldn’t take another 28 years to get through the book again?

    “I’m open for changing, and that’s simply because this group doesn’t exist because of me,” said Fialka. “It exists because of all of us.”

    For more information, go to

    What books have you been enjoying? Please email me at [email protected] with “ERIK’S BOOK PAGES” in the subject line and I may include your comments in an upcoming newsletter.

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    Thanks, as always, for reading.

    Elana K. Arnold found a book treasure in a thrift shop

    Elana K. Arnold is the author of a number of books, including “The Blood Years.” (Photo by Arielle Gray / Courtesy of Harper Collins)

    Long Beach resident and National Book Award finalist Elana K. Arnold is the author of a number of books for kids and young adults, including “A Boy Called Bat,” “Red Hood,” “What Girls Are Made of” and “The Blood Years,” which she’s launching with a free event on Oct. 9. She’s also the second most-banned author on PEN America’s most recent list, which she discussed in last week’s newsletter. Here, she answers questions about books, reading and something that nobody knows about her book.

    Q. Is there a book or books you always recommend to other readers?

    I absolutely love “What It Is” by Lynda Barry. I recommend it to other creative people—writers, artists, musicians—all the time. “The Golden Compass” by Philip Pullman made me want to write again after a series of dry years; its central conceit (which I won’t spoil here) struck me, an animal lover, as so right that I never wanted to leave that world. I recently read “The Idiot” and “Either/Or,” and I can’t stop telling people about them; Elif Batuman’s character, Selin, felt like a smarter, better-educated version of myself. And I recommend “Craft in the Real World” by Matthew Salesses to everyone I know who teaches writing, and every student who plans to take a creative writing workshop.

    Q. How do you decide what to read next?

    So many different ways! Sometimes, it’s a recommendation from a friend, or a mention in a podcast. Other, times, it’s a book I read a review of. My favorite way to discover a book is to stumble upon it, as I recently did with “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” which somehow, I’ve never read and just found in a thrift store. I ate it up in three days.

    Q. Is there a genre or type of book you read the most – and what would you like to read more of?

    Really, I love so many types of books. What I’m drawn to can depend on my mood, what I’m working on, if I’m stressed or relaxed, the season, the weather. Mysteries, in my opinion, are best read in the winter, pulled up close to a fireplace, a cup of tea in hand and a cat on my lap.  Nonfiction seems most accessible to me in the mornings when my brain feels freshest. Late-night reads tend to be pulled from my bedside stack of new releases or just-found thrift store finds, a hodgepodge of genres that leans toward realistic/literary. I read very little science fiction and keep meaning to delve more deeply into this space.

    Q. Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life – a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?

    My grandmother, upon whose early life “The Blood Years” is based, was central to my conception of myself as a reader and as a writer. She saw the time I spent reading in her home library— just a spare bedroom full of bookshelves — as sacred work, and she would bring me little gilded bowls full of grapes or berries to nourish me as I read. There were no limits placed on what I was allowed to read, no judgment about what I reached for or how many times I might return to the same book. And Nana filled our time together with stories: made-up nonsense stories about Illa the Gorilla, a character she invented to explain what had happened to her car when she ran into a pole or bruised her leg; real-life stories about her experiences as a child and a teen, many of which became the backbone of “The Blood Years.” Nana modeled for me that storytelling and story sharing is a way to live a life.

    Q. What do you find the most appealing in a book: the plot, the language, the cover, a recommendation? Do you have any examples?

    I think more than anything, what appeals to me in a book is the sensation of being surprised: when I’ve expected one thing from a book and found that I’ve gotten something else. You never know when you’re going to encounter this experience, and I think it’s evoked differently for different readers. I remember being deeply surprised—shocked—when, as a pre-teen, I stumbled upon “The Neverending Story” on a library shelf; when I opened it, I found the story was printed in red ink, and as I progressed into the book, when Bastian falls into the story, the ink color switched to green. Oh, I remember the thrill of that! Another totally different book that delighted me with surprise was Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower”; when King appears as a character, I gasped.

    Q. What’s something about your book that no one knows?

    When I first conceived of “The Blood Years,” which is a historical novel set in Czernowitz, Romania, before and during the Holocaust and is based on my grandmother’s young life, I planned to set it in the future, in an eco-ravaged world in which the Holocaust comes again. As Opa, one of the characters in “The Blood Years,” often says, “Everything is cyclical.” And setting the story in the future felt like a really fantastic way to underline the cyclicality of persecution. But this was before Donald Trump was elected president, before the Tiki-torch-carrying mob of White nationalists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the light of so much loud, violent hate, setting this story in an imagined future felt less like a thought experiment and more like a premonition. And it seemed more vital than ever to write down our history, to reflect on the past in a way that informs the present and the future.

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