Review: Obsure, Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure Read by Michael Ian Black

Obscure by Michael Ian BlackThe last episode of Michael Ian Black’s podcast Obscure (the premise of which is that Michael Ian Black reads Thomas Hardy’s novel Jude the Obscure and comments on it as he goes) dropped a few weeks ago, but graduate school hasn’t left me with a lot of time. Now that I’m on break, both from graduate school and work, I have been able to catch up.

I will be honest. I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles a couple of years ago and found it so bleak that I wasn’t sure about listening to Michael Ian Black read Jude the Obscure. Hardy can be really bleak. In that respect, Jude the Obscure doesn’t disappoint. However, the communal experience of listening to this book and hearing Michael Ian Black’s reactions to what he was reading transcended the actual text itself and made for one of the most enjoyable “reads” of the year for me.

For those not familiar with the story, the protagonist Jude is born in obscurity to a family with a history of bad luck. He is raised by his aunt, who makes it clear he is nothing but a burden. He dreams of being a scholar one day, and he shows an aptitude for learning. However, he is living in Victorian England and finds it impossible to rise in the world. He winds up married young to a grasping, scheming woman, finds a brief period of happiness and love with his cousin Sue, and suffers devastating loss. The plot is typical Hardy. However, there is something moving and transcendent about Jude’s experience. Jude might be any of us. Jude is any one of us. Michael Ian Black’s reading brought home that point in a way I’m not sure I would have appreciated if I hadn’t read the book in this way.

One thing I loved about Michael Ian Black’s reading is that it started with curiosity, and he remained curious throughout the reading. He frequently brought on guests who might help illuminate issues raised by the book, and when he didn’t know a word or a reference, he looked it up. I felt like I went on a journey with him as a fellow reader. Michael Ian Black doesn’t position himself as an expert. He makes it clear he is reading and reacting to the text based on his own experiences and understandings, and that is probably what is best about Obscure. I found listening to the podcast by turns laugh-out-loud funny and poignantly sad, particularly towards the end as Michael Ian Black connects his reading of the book to losses of his own. His interpretation always struck me as spot-on and very honest.

The podcast is worth your time, and if you fall behind, it’s great for bingeing. I really, really hope that Michael Ian Black reads other books like this.

Edited to add: The novel underscored for me again, as if I need more evidence, that literature reflects the human condition. We can find ourselves in it if we take a look, and Michael Ian Black’s reading of this classic novel definitely allowed for that kind of reflection. My friend Robin writes so much more eloquently than I can about literature’s power to show us ourselves.

Rating: ★★★★★

NaNoWriMo Update

I have tried on a couple of occasions to record a podcast about A Question of Honor, but I find myself embarrassingly forgetful of some details. I opened it up today, for instance, and I discovered that I had completely forgotten a character in the book. My reaction was “Oh, that’s right. Now I remember who that was.” Kind of embarrassing. I think I need to refresh my memory on some details before I record more podcasts about the process of writing that book.

My NaNoWriMo novel Quicksand is beginning to live up to its title. I am really happy with how it’s going. I had an idea today that meant I would need to do some substantial rewriting and revising, and that’s hard to do on a NaNo schedule. I wound up adding a chapter near the beginning and changing some details here and there, but in the end I think I fixed nearly everything I need to fix to make my new idea work. I think once I’m done, I’ll print out the book so I can see it in print and made revisions that way. It is hard for me to read something as lengthy as a book on the computer (which is one reason why my PDF of Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide has gone so long unread on my computer).

I am caught up on the word count despite taking a day off on Friday. I have 23,390 words written (the suggested word count for today is 23,333). I’m happy about how naturally the writing is coming. I didn’t make an outline, which I suspect will mean I will have some inconsistencies to clear up.

I wondered how long the average adult novel is, and I found a fairly good word count guide at Tristi Pinkston’s blog. The 50,000-word requirement for NaNoWriMo will yield a fairly short adult novel or long young adult novel. I think I read somewhere that it’s about 170 pages, but I assumed that count referred to word processor pages rather than typeset pages. If you figure 250 words per page, as Pinkston suggests, then I have written about 93.5 pages. I tried Pinkston’s trick with a Matthew Pearl book and estimate it might have between 92,500 and 111,000 words, depending on the number of words per page. I don’t want my book to be that long. I picked up a copy of Finn by Jon Clinch, which looks about as long as I want my book to be, and I estimate it at about 70,000 to 84,000 words using Pinkston’s method. Thus, 50,000 isn’t going be enough. I just need to get to 50,000 by November 30, but I think I’m going to need to keep writing if I want my book to be about the average length for an adult novel. I am going to shoot for about 75,000, and we’ll see. I was glad I found Pinkston’s post because word counts mystify me. Still, as Pinkston says, what you really need to focus on is how many words you need to tell the story. The way I figure it, if you’re talking word count, I’m almost at the point where Siddhartha ends, and I am not nearly done; yet, Siddhartha is a well-written, influential novel, and I have never heard anyone complain it’s too short to tell its story.

Question of Honor Podcast #1

On the way home from dropping my daughter off to stay with her father for the weekend, I decided to record this podcast using my iPhone. I didn’t edit it much, and as such you can hear some mild road traffic and the windshield wipers slapping every now and then, but I think it works. It’s informal—just me talking about some elements of writing my book. With NaNoWriMo beginning this weekend, I have been reflecting on the process of writing the last book I completed, and I really wanted to record these thoughts in the form of a podcast rather than writing so that I could turn off the editor and just talk.

A Question of Honor #1

BookCast Podcast

I started doing something new with my classes each Friday this year.  I shared book reviews for books I thought they might enjoy.  Over time, in order to save class time, I began recording these reviews as BookCast podcasts.  I am not sure if my students are listening to them or enjoying them (they don’t know it, but using the class blog and responding to what I do for them at that site will be a grade requirement next semester), but I thought I’d post them here as well, for those of you readers who might truly enjoy them.  Keep in mind the podcast is aimed at teenagers; however, you might find some new reading material among the reviews.

BookCast 1: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll and The Coffin Quilt by Ann Rinaldi.

BookCast Episode One

I’ll add the other BookCasts over the next few weeks and from thereafter, I’ll cross-post the BookCasts here.

Between the Lines: The Commoner

The subject of this week’s episode of Between the Lines, a book review program broadcast on Atlanta’s NPR affiliate WABE, is John Burnham Schwartz’s The Commoner. My tastes tend to skew Western, but this book sounds very interesting. It’s definitely going on my to-read pile, which is growing quite large while I am taking two online professional learning courses — I haven’t had as much time to read fiction as I’d like.

You can listen to this week’s show and learn more about The Commoner by clicking the plus sign on the flash player below. I finally subscribed to the weekly podcast so I won’t miss any more episodes.

Download link

Do you have any literature-related podcasts to recommend?  Feel free to discuss in the comments.