Oh, hi

These just bloomed
Little mystery flowers in the backyard.

Apparently I forgot about this blog.

I’ve been so absorbed with real life — and the very serious, very important work of dog blogging — that I seem to have lost interest in this little space. I may wander back from time to time.

General Life Updates

  • We have to move out of our weird, happy, little farmhouse–hovel, as the landlords (who really are wonderful humans, let it be said) are putting it on the market. This is very sad, but it might also be very promising, because now we’re thinking about buying a house of our own. Pray for us. We have no idea what we’re doing.
  • Guion got a job!
  • I’ve had this stupid, lingering cold for a week now, which made me miss out on the family camping expedition.
  • We’re taking a hiatus from fostering dogs, because the housing situation is up in the air. This makes me sad, but not as sad as it makes Pyrrha, who really misses having a live-in playmate. I think she’s fundamentally bored with just the two of us humans.
  • I’m re-reading The Sound and the Fury, and guys, I am loving fiction again, after being rather immune to its powers for months and months (thanks a lot, David Foster Wallace; you broke me). I have also learned the secret to Faulkner: SLOW DOWN. To a snail’s pace. And then you shall love him.
  • I’m throwing out most colors in my wardrobe.
  • So OVER the government.

What’s new with you?

Orchid is still blooming
Orchid, still going strong.

Top 10 books I read in 2012: Absalom, Absalom! (#1)

Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom!

WILLIAM FAULKNER
Vintage, 1991; 320 pages.

“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all. — Absalom, Absalom!

I don’t want to write this review.

I don’t know how to even talk about this book, except to say that I feel like it changed my life.

I don’t think it should be surprising that this is my best book of 2012, the best book out of the 142 that I read. Absalom, Absalom! is called the best Southern novel over and over again and I think it should be called the best American novel.

This is the second time I read this book. The first time I read it, I was probably 18, and I swore I’d never read Faulkner again. I didn’t understand even a third of it. But this time around, I took it seriously. I spent hours with it. I took copious notes. I treated it like a class. It is not easy to read. (Some liken it to the American Ulysses.) But don’t take that to mean that this novel isn’t enjoyable, beautiful, profound, or moving. It is all of those things in full volume.

Absalom, Absalom! is the ultimate testament to memory. Particularly, are our family histories reliable? Is anyone’s history reliable?

Faulkner’s prose is unbearably vivid and alive. His language is precise and startling. His images are disturbing and resonant. He writes with a breathlessness that sweeps you up, into the dusty plantation hallway, into the dark bedchamber of a dying man, into the cold space of a New England dorm room.

Absalom, Absalom! is remarkably relevant. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in his essay about the novel, published in the New York Times, regarding Faulkner’s choices:

Even when he does tell you everything, you can’t entirely trust it. No surer sign exists of the book’s greatness than how it seems to reconfigure itself and assume a new dimension, once we feel we know it, and these shifting walls of ambiguity were designed by Faulkner himself. They allow the text a curious liquid quality, so that it can seem alive, as if it might be modified by recent history too.

America’s preoccupying obsession with race is still present. It is dangerously present in Absalom, Absalom! and it is dangerously present today. Faulkner won’t let us forget this. Let it sit with you now. Let this novel bring a historical consciousness to life. Let it make you see that we have not progressed with any great strides.

Top 10 books I read in 2012: A Mercy (#10)

A Mercy

A Mercy

TONI MORRISON
Knopf, 2008; 167 pages.

I have read a lot of Toni Morrison, I suppose, and I rank Beloved high among my all-time favorite novels. When I heard about A Mercy, though, I wasn’t planning on reading it. A novel set in the 1680s about slavery? Doesn’t really sound like a good time.

But I was really just experiencing a form of literary amnesia, because, come on. This is Toni Morrison. She knows what is UP.

Against my expectations, I was riveted from the first page and I think I read the whole novel in a night (at a mere 167 pages, this is an easy thing to do. The font size is also huge, at least in the paperback edition I read).

I think this book is fundamental Morrison, if I can say that–Morrison at her most Faulknerian, most bare, most essential. I wonder if I feel this way about the novel because of its historical setting. Here we are at the very beginning of America, in which it is still a nameless, lawless wilderness, where human nature exists at its most raw and unfiltered. In this way, Morrison’s language mimics the newness and rawness of the newborn American landscape and its hardy inhabitants. It is beautiful, spare prose and every line reads like a dream.

Accordingly, these characters are also beautiful and complex, layered in that kind of unfathomable way that Morrison is known for. She renders these early settlers, slave owners and slaves, husbands and wives, orphans and children, with a startling grace and honesty.

The slim novel is told in various short chapters, each one narrated by a different character. All of these people–Jacob, Florens, Lina, Sorrow, Rebekka–have distinctive voices. What I particularly loved is that there is no clear protagonist and no clear villain. Each character has his or her virtues and vices, just like us flesh-and-blood humans; no one stands out as purely good or purely evil. Everyone exists in darkness and light.

In short: A Mercy is brief and perfect, everything Morrison has ever promised us with her prose.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

11. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
12. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
13. Home, Marilynne Robinson
14. Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner
15. The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
16. The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
17. Faces in the Water, Janet Frame
18. American Primitive, Mary Oliver
19. Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
20. Sophie’s Choice, William Styron
21. The Black Sheep, Honoré de Balzac
22. Jazz, Toni Morrison

Faulkner: Our way of living needs slamming

William Faulkner, chillin'. Source: This Recording.

Q: Are we degenerating?

William Faulkner: No. Reading is something that is in a way necessary like heaven or a clean collar, but not important. We want culture but don’t want to go to any trouble to get it. We prefer reading condensations.

Q: That sounds like a slam on our way of living.

William Faulkner: Our way of living needs slamming. Everybody’s aim is to help people, turn them to heaven. You write to help people. The existence of this class in creative writing is good in that you take time off to learn to write and you are in a period where time is your most valuable possession.

— William Faulkner answers questions from his students at the University of Mississippi in 1947, republished on This Recording.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Taking off early this week to spend a weekend in the Triangle with old friends! Can’t wait. Pax. Remember what Faulkner says.

Babies and old men

Nettles at The Southern.
Happy Phinehas and his dear mother.
Baby buns! Phin is clearly appalled to be embarrassed in this way.

Oh, this schizophrenic half-winter of ours: Snowstorm this morning and now, at noon, it has ceased and the sun is coming out.

This weekend: Nettles, the Hill and Wood, and Luke Wilson played at The Southern; Matt Kleberg had a really wonderful opening at McGuffey; I began to re-read and fall in love with Absalom, Absalom! and retract every bad thing I ever said about it; and we got to watch UNC gloriously shame Duke at the McDermott’s on brew day. A very good weekend, by my estimation.

On Friday, I transcribed a painstaking, largely unsuccessful interview with a 106-year-old man, a legend in the industry. These were the important takeaways to me: If you are 106, you have the right to say things like, “Are you here just because you failed in the movie business?” to the unctuous young videographer coaxing you for an answer you thought you already gave. If you are 106, you don’t have to do anything if you don’t feel like it. If you are 106, your brain will start to winnow out all of the unimportant things, so that when the interviewer asks you to talk about your big career highlights, you will instead talk about your sons and how they graduated at the top of their class and how they tried to avoid going to war and how you named them after your best friends.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: Light in August (#6)

Light in August.

#6: LIGHT IN AUGUST, William Faulkner.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

This novel is supposedly William Faulkner-lite, which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. To my deep and unutterable shame, I have slogged through The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! with no pleasant memories of either. However. This? I really liked.

Light in August is the accessible proof for the claim that some make, that Faulkner is the greatest writer of all time. After reading this novel, I find that to be a plausible statement. I wanted to believe in Faulkner’s unmatched greatness after having read The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, but I only pretended to understand that claim, in the same way that I pretended to understand ranking Ulysses as the greatest novel ever written. The works are too dense, difficult, and vast for me, and so I nod quietly and assume their genius without attempting to comprehend. This, however, was comprehensible and a solid and clear proof of Faulkner’s brilliance and his unblemished standing in the Western canon.

The novel, published and set in 1932, concerns a small town in Mississippi with a cast of complicated and contentious characters. The lack of progress, poverty, and dismal state of race relations made me think that this book was set in the late 1800s. I was shocked when I realized that it was intended as a portrait of the contemporary deep South. But Faulkner knew it like no other. Light in August follows three interconnected characters in this town, judiciously examining their motives and propelling their dark and fascinating destinies.

A young white woman, Lena, arrives in town, alone and very pregnant, searching for the father of her baby. She knows him as Lucas Burch, and he last promised that he’d “send for her” once he moved down to Mississippi, a promise that we soon learn he is no good for. While looking for Burch, Lena meets Byron Bunch, who quickly falls in love with her. Byron Bunch helps her find Burch, who is now going by the name of Joe Brown. Brown has been living with a strange and secretive man, Joe Christmas. Christmas more or less becomes the central character of the story and it is his sad and perplexing fate that we become most concerned with.

Christmas becomes involved with a white woman in town, Joanna, the daughter of a famously abolitionist and thus unpopular family. Their relationship is built on a desperate and erotic dependence and is, to say the least, twisted and unhealthy. Through a series of unfortunate events, Joanna’s house is burned to the ground and she is found inside, murdered and nearly decapitated. The killer is on the lam and is suspected to be Brown or Christmas. Faulkner never clearly tells us who killed Joanna, but the townspeople are convinced it’s Christmas and commence a man hunt for him. Their desire for Christmas’s life is intensified when it is revealed that Christmas is half-black. I won’t give away everything, as I nearly have, except to say that this is not a happy story. Faulkner doesn’t peddle shiny endings. He writes the recognizably gritty and honest stories and captures the darkness of both Mississippi and the human condition.

I happened to be reading Light in August while I was reading The Help, which was one of the worst (and easily most overrated) books I read all year. This was a fascinating juxtaposition. Light in August helped shine light on all the ways that Kathryn Stockett failed in her feel-good portrayal of Mississippi some 30 years later. Faulkner provided a brilliant contrast to Stockett’s fairytale world, in which all people are 100% good or 100% evil, and in which you finish the novel feeling really good about white people saving the day for black people. Faulkner is too honest to perpetuate that terrible myth. Unsurprisingly, he is vastly more insightful than Stockett in his reading of human nature. In the dark and uncomforting universe of this novel, people are complicated and imperfect. Their motives are not immediately apparent. No one is purely good; no one is purely evil; no one is easily summed up in one line, like you can do with all of Stockett’s two-dimensional characters. People are not so simple, he reminds us. People, both white and black, are full of mixed motives, mystery, and promise. Faulkner lifts the veil and forces us to focus on this uncomfortable truth.

20 essential authors

A few weeks ago, when Windy and Mike were visiting, and Tracy was staying at our house, the women were lingering in our apartment, talking about books. Windy and Tracy asked me for my recommendations of the essential authors who need to be read in the Western canon. Quite a question. I didn’t have a good answer–I mumbled something about Joyce and Woolf and Shakespeare–but I’m going to try to prepare one now.

For Windy and Tracy:

My List of 20 Essential Authors in the Western Canon

20. Toni Morrison

Morrison’s novels have always completely enchanted me. I feel she is channeling something similar to Virginia Woolf, an intimation confirmed when I found out she wrote her master’s thesis on Woolf and Faulkner. Nothing escapes her notice. Her characters are raw. Her characters’ experiences are so far removed from my own, and yet Morrison’s undeniable talent lies in the fact that she makes all of her people extremely close. You care for them like family. My favorites: Beloved and Sula. To read: A Mercy, Tar Baby, The Bluest Eye.

19. Emily Brontë/Charlotte Brontë

Maybe it’s not fair to include both of them under one point, but they both wrote one important novel each, and they’re sisters, so, sorry, Ellis and Currer Bell. The Brontës are still so shocking to me. They prove the power of the imagination and the ascension of the artist’s soul above demeaning material and cultural circumstances. How did two sheltered women in the mid-19th century write such dark, powerful novels? Wuthering Heights is one of the most upsetting novels I’ve ever read and yet I cannot deny that it is a masterpiece. Jane Eyre is beautiful and moving. Both need to be read.

18. John Steinbeck

This man can write a NOVEL. If you’ve ever been through an American high school, I’m sure you know that by now. If you didn’t like Steinbeck when you were 15, try him again. He doesn’t write for children. My favorites: East of Eden, The Grapes of Wrath.

17. Ernest Hemingway

I like to say that Hemingway is the only “macho” writer I’ve ever liked. He writes about drunken brawls, war, hunting, and bullfighting. His writing style is be the polar opposite of Virginia Woolf’s. And yet. I like him. I even love some of his novels. This is because Hemingway doesn’t succumb to the common path of many male writers strung up with their machismo. He doesn’t write women who are tired, sexy stereotypes and he lets his tough guys cry. Hemingway writes like a real man–not one who is trying to prove that he is. My favorites: A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, his short stories.

16. Eudora Welty

In basic description, she may be difficult to distinguish from Flannery O’Connor: Both native Southern women who wrote collections of compelling short stories. I was first introduced to Welty when I was quite young. Our family friend, Dave, who is a writer, gave me a collection of her complete short stories. I started reading them when I was about 12 or 13 and have been enchanted by her and her world ever since. Another writer I’ll always return to.

15. William Faulkner

By all accounts, I should be in love with William Faulkner. He’s a modernist and he’s Southern. I love both of those genres. But I confess that I’ve never loved one of his novels. This could be because I’ve only read two (The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!). But he’s consistently called one of the greatest writers ever to have lived (or THE greatest writer ever to have lived, if you’re this lit blog). This to say, I think Faulkner is important because everyone says he is important. Lame, I know. But I’m not giving up on him yet. Next up: Light in August, which should be arriving by post any day now.

14. Emily Dickinson

Who has ever written such short and such profoundly beautiful lines? No one can match Dickinson in this regard. One of my most prized books on my shelf is my giant anthology of her complete works. You can read just about any page and leave with your mind inspired and your heart illuminated.

13. Homer

Obligatory inclusion for the Father of Western Literature. Blah blah blah. I can never really make it through “The Odyssey,” but he has to be on this list somewhere.

12. Annie Dillard

Annie Dillard has a ravenously curious mind. I also think she’s read almost every book that was ever written. The amount of information that this woman KNOWS is simply astounding–and yet she writes with simple, direct humility. I have never read one of her novels, but her most famous books have made a sizable impression on my heart. One of the worthiest living American writers today. My favorites: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, For the Time Being. To read: Teaching a Stone to Talk, The Writing Life, her novels.

11. Jane Austen

I don’t tell people that I like Jane Austen now, because her reputation has been ruined by Hollywood. Thanks to silly films, most people write Austen off as a writer of fluffy, feel-good “chick lit.” Yes, there’s always a marriage at the end, but this is a classic trope of comedy she borrowed from Shakespeare; give the woman a break. She’s supremely intelligent, witty, and funny. Her characters evade stereotype. Her novels endure. I wish Austen could be seen for what she really was: A gifted artist who permanently affected the trajectory of the English novel–and got her reputation ruined by Hollywood. My favorites: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility.

10. George Eliot

I like to think of her as the female, British version of Tolstoy, if that makes any sense. Like Tolstoy, she created full-fledged universes in her novels and never wrote on a small scale. Virginia Woolf once said of Middlemarch, “It is one of the few novels written for grown-up people.” I think it is a wonderful description and one that fittingly applies. It’s still one of my all-time favorites.

9. T.S. Eliot

Clearly, I have a thing for the modernists. “The Waste Land” will probably have a similar effect as Ulysses; so dense it’s barely comprehensible without a guide. While that will stand as his great contribution, I think his truly wonderful work lies in The Four Quartets. And “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” will always have my heart.

8. James Joyce

I say that I read Ulysses last year, but I don’t know if I can say that. I looked at all of the words in Ulysses–and there are a LOT of them–but I’m not sure how much of it I really understood. I was using Allusions in Ulysses (UNC Press) as a guide the whole time, and that was a huge help, but it was still an arduous task. If you’re not a native Dubliner, Roman Catholic, and fluent in Latin and classic mythology–basically if you’re not Joyce–a lot of Ulysses will be incomprehensible without the help of a guide. Still. Most people say it’s the greatest novel ever written. It certainly changed the face of modern literature in a way that no other book did. My favorite: Dubliners (collection of short stories), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. To read: Ulysses, again.

7. Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy is probably the best at creating an entire world within the pages of his (usually long) books. He won’t let you escape the figurative boundaries he has created for you. But, as it is in my case, one is usually more than content to stay, to learn about these rich, realistic characters and their challenges. Essentially, he’s famous for a reason. He should be read. My favorites: Anna Karenina, Resurrection, and The Kreutzer Sonata. To read: His letters and essays.

6. Flannery O’Connor

O’Connor is second in my book for master of the short story form, close on the heels of Anton Chekhov. She writes with conviction and wry humor. She always tells it like she sees it. My favorites: “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” stands out, as does her other most famous one, “Everything That Rises Must Converge.” But all of them are good. To read: Brad Gooch’s recent biography of her, Flannery

5. Vladimir Nabokov

“Genius” is a word too liberally rendered to authors, but it has never been misapplied in Vladimir Nabokov’s case. He wrote one of (if not THE) greatest novels, Lolita–and he wrote it in English, his fourth language. His mind is enchanted by language. He makes up words. He creates characters so externally appalling and so internally sympathetic that one’s moral compass is thrown entirely off kilter. He’ll make your skin crawl, but you’ll keep returning to him. Because he’s the best. My favorites: Lolita and Pale Fire. To read: Most of his other novels; Speak, Memory, and Lectures on Russian Literature.

4. Anton Chekhov

I believe Chekhov is the greatest short story writer who ever lived, and I’d pick a fight with anyone who disagreed. Just read four or five of his stories and you’ll fall under his spell. His plays are equally incredible, and probably more famous. Chekhov was a noble-hearted country doctor who started writing later in his career. His glimpses into the souls of people are inspiring and chilling. My favorites: The Cherry Orchard (play), The Duel (novella), Grief (short story). To read: His memoir and his letters.

3. Marcel Proust

I’m currently reading Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, although his thesis is not something that I need to be convinced of; I already believe it’s true. For the past four summers now, I have read a volume of his epic novel, In Search of Lost Time (aka Remembrance of Things Past). It’s an arduous task. I only read a volume a year, because I think it takes me a full year to recover from it. Nothing escapes Proust’s notice. The whole world is infinitely fascinating to him; all people worth describing; all memories worth mining. Proust captures the beauty and complexity of humanity in a dazzling, astonishing way. How can it be? He writes about rich people orbiting around each other at parties. And yet he writes about all of humankind. My favorite volumes, so far: Swann’s Way and Sodom and Gomorrah. To read: The final three volumes!

2. Virginia Woolf

It’s no secret that this woman is my hero. I spent a year and a half re-reading all of her novels and essays and then I wrote a sprawling, 130-page love letter to her, in the form of a mismanaged and somewhat poorly executed undergraduate thesis. I could talk about her all day long; consider that your warning. Woolf does something to me that no other writer does. I think all readers have a writer who affects them in this way. When I read her novels, I feel perfectly understood, completely reached–and yet constantly drawn in and mystified. She refashioned the novel in a way that no one else did or has done since. I will return to her for the rest of my life and I’d encourage all readers to do the same. My favorites: To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Dalloway, The Waves, A Room of One’s Own. To read: Her extensive letters and the rest of her diaries.

1. William Shakespeare

The man invented most of our commonly used phrases and puns. That alone should get him some quality read-time. Aside from that, he just has to be read, thoroughly, for his influence on English literature extends beyond what anyone else accomplished. Yes, the language can be dense sometimes, but with a good annotated copy and a Shakespeare dictionary–and the willingness to read aloud to yourself–he’s a guaranteed great time. He’s merry and bawdy and the greatest wit you’ll ever meet. My favorites: King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Richard III. Still to be read: Julius Caesar and about five or six other plays.

Who would be on your list? Who do you think I’m missing?