Black in America: Essential reading list

We read to broaden our minds, and nowhere does this seem more vital right now than for white America to read black America. Following is a list of books that have challenged, enlightened, and inspired me.

Have read and heartily recommend

James Baldwin. Creative Commons license.
James Baldwin. Creative Commons license.

Nonfiction

  • The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander
  • White Girls, Hilton Als
  • Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”, Beverly Daniel Tatum
Toni Morrison. Creative Commons license.
Toni Morrison. Creative Commons license.

Fiction

  • Go Tell It on a Mountain, James Baldwin
  • Another Country, James Baldwin
  • The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  • The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  • Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • Passing, Nella Larsen
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
  • A Mercy, Toni Morrison
  • Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  • Sula, Toni Morrison
  • Cane, Jean Toomer
  • The Color Purple, Alice Walker
  • Native Son, Richard Wright
Malcolm X. Creative Commons license.
Malcolm X. Creative Commons license.

Memoir/Autobiography

  • Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass
  • Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington
  • The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley
Rita Dove. Creative Commons license.
Rita Dove. Creative Commons license.

Poetry

  • Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems, Robin Coste Lewis
  • Selected Poems, Rita Dove
  • Thomas and Beulah, Rita Dove
  • Head Off & Split, Nikky Finney
  • Against Which, Ross Gay
  • Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  • Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith
  • Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey

And I still have a good many books that I want to read, including the following.

Audre Lorde. Creative Commons license.
Audre Lorde. Creative Commons license.

On my reading list

  • Collected Essays, James Baldwin
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
  • Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
  • Going to Meet the Man, James Baldwin
  • Notes of a Native Son, James Baldwin
  • Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, James Baldwin
  • Slaves in the Family, Edward Ball
  • Blacks, Gwendolyn Brooks
  • The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. du Bois
  • The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed
  • Ain’t I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, bell hooks
  • Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, Peniel E. Joseph
  • Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde
  • Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde
  • Carry Me Home: Birmingham, Alabama, Diane McWhorter
  • Freshwater Road, Denise Nicholas
  • The Street, Ann Petry
  • Citizen, Claudia Rankine
  • The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright

What would you add to either of these lists?

Books I am surprised I still haven’t read

These books have been on my to-read list forever.

  1. A Death in the Family, James Agee
  2. The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
  3. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson
  4. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
  5. The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  6. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  7. Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
  8. Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
  9. Long Day’s Journey into Night, Eugene O’Neill
  10. Metamorphoses, Ovid
  11. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
  12. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne
  13. The Aeneid, Virgil
  14. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West
  15. The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley

I may never read them, but I know I SHOULD.

Monday Snax

This past week, we celebrated Win’s birthday a day early, by eating super-spicy Chinese food at Peter Chang’s and by clinking glasses of dark craft beer with friends at The Local. It was a classic Charlottesville birthday.

Then, this weekend, we traveled to Greensboro to see Daniel and Lauren get married! They are so wonderful and we were so happy to be there to celebrate with them. Brief photo recap below:

More photos from recent life on Flickr.

Snax:

Two supporting arguments/news trivia related to my list of stuff that makes me angry: Why I’m Reconsidering My Diet Soda Addiction (GOOD) and The Interns Are Organizing (Daily Intel).

Your Guide to Literary Tumblrs. A very comprehensive list of the best book-related Tumblrs. (The Millions)

Thank you, brothers! Thoughtful responses by Christian men to John Piper’s unbelievable/offensive pronouncement that Christianity is and should be a masculine religion, that the best churches are ones with a “masculine feel.” (Rachel Held Evans)

Black-and-White Photos Get a Taste of Color. Ever wondered what Anne Frank, Mark Twain, or Abraham Lincoln might look like in color/real life? Here’s an idea. (GOOD)

New Work, Black on White. Oh, to be this talented with a flexible nib! (Alissa Mazzenga)

DIY Valentine’s Wreath. Those who know me know that I am really not into cute DIY projects, but this one looks pretty darn adorable–and easy enough for someone like me to attempt. (Mod Cloth blog)

So tempting right now. Oh, nothing. Just an announcement that these two glorious dogs from a local Aussie breeder are having puppies in late March. Committed to rescue, committed to rescue… (Inkwell Aussies)

Long exposure photographs of fireflies. This is so magical! (Fox Is Black)

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: The Marriage Plot (#8)

The Marriage Plot.

#8: THE MARRIAGE PLOT, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

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.

2011 was a year of discovering great writers I had never previously read: Marilynne Robinson (more on her later) and Jeffrey Eugenides. Eugenides was a name I was familiar with, but I’d somehow never gotten around to him. In 2011, I read the vibrant and sprawling Middlesex with Lulu; The Virgin Suicides and then watched Sofia Coppola’s excellent adaptation by myself one night; and then, just a few weeks ago, I read his long-awaited new novel, The Marriage Plot.

I had a good feeling about this book. Twenty pages in, I was totally engrossed. It’s been a long time since I read a book that was hard to put down on the nightstand. I finished the novel quickly and triumphantly and my mind was spinning. I say this with a bit of reservation. This is why: I admit that The Marriage Plot held my rapt attention because I am an English major. If there was ever a novel written just for English majors, this is it. I hesitate to write this, for the admission makes it sound like non-English majors wouldn’t enjoy this book. I don’t think that’s true, but I do think the pleasure of this story is greatly enhanced if you are–like its characters–also a university-educated, drifting, literary snob.

It’s 1982. Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate with a degree in English from Brown University. She is kind of a mess, but a restrained mess. She, like most of us, is striving to stay in control of her life. But her desire for control is lost when she falls in love with a completely uncontrollable young man, Leonard Bankhead. Leonard is almost everything Madeleine is not, except for the fact that they were both literature majors from Brown. That sounds like a strong and compelling similarity, but in Eugenides’ world, it’s not enough to keep them together. Leonard suffers from bipolar disorder and drags Madeleine with him, causing her to realize he is one thing she cannot analyze, describe, and control.

The novel could be entirely about Madeleine and Leonard’s love affair, but then Eugenides makes it a little more interesting by establishing a trio. We are introduced to Mitchell Grammaticus, also a classmate from Brown, who has been infatuated with Madeleine for years. Mitchell was my favorite of the these three main characters. He is thoughtful and lovable and pitiable; Mitchell’s story is the most vulnerable and relatable of the three. Like so many college students today, Mitchell graduates and wants to do something with his life, so he goes abroad. He volunteers with Mother Teresa’s infirmary in Calcutta. He looks for answers and Eugenides does not give him many. But we like Mitchell. We want him to “win,” in whatever form that takes, and we are given a gentle conclusion.

The brilliance of The Marriage Plot, for me, was Eugenides’ profound ability to read one’s thoughts. He has a prescient way of writing about people that reminds me of a more basic Proust. He loops in and out of characters’ minds, examining and explaining them with mercy and patience. It is a human novel, a clever reminder of the weakness we all bear. Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell had nothing to do with me and everything to do with me. This, I think, is a mark of an enduring, worthwhile novel.

Monday Snax

Big city living. Davis, West Virginia.
Matt, Liz, and Ross, surviving switchbacks.

We took a very short weekend trip to the tiny mountain town of Thomas, West Virginia, so the boys could visit Mountain State Brewing Co. (Liz and I were able to find a coffee shop, to our amazement, which provided some respite from the bar.) We narrowly survived the seemingly endless switchbacks and hairpin turns and the little Versa even trucked it up there. A fun and very different way to spend the weekend; more photos on Flickr.

Snax:

Longform’s Best of 2011. The best long-form journalism from last year. I really want to read all of these. I love a good, thorough, and fascinating article. (Longform)

The 25 Greatest Epigraphs in Literature. I love a good epigraph! This is a great and comprehensive list. Have you read any of these novels? Do you agree? (Flavorwire)

World’s Biggest Websites at Launch, 1990s. Wow, Amazon. Looking pretty rough. And Google, that exclamation point? Garish. (Retronaut)

Best Correction in New York Times History. This takes the cake. You have to admire their commitment to accuracy. (Best Week Ever)

Christmas Time with the Family. Grace’s touching recap of our (lovely and goofy) family holidays. (Como Say What?)

Most Anticipated: The Great 2012 Book Preview. Wow. Apparently, there are a lot of great books set to come out this year. I’m looking forward to reading many of them! (I’m especially excited about Marilynne Robinson’s When I Was a Child, I Read Books.) (The Millions)

Dallas Calligrapher: Fabulous Forty. Now that is impressive calligraphy: Flexible nib with white ink, slanted, on a hot pink envelope. I’m jealous of her skills. (The Lefthanded Calligrapher)

Scandals of Classic Hollywood: Cary Grant’s Intimate Bromance. Thoughts on the beautiful and peerless Grant and his versatile loves. (The Hairpin)

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?

My favorite morally bankrupt characters

I don’t like overly sunny novels. I can’t stand to read about ridiculously virtuous characters. As a child, I hated Nancy Drew (“Nancy tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and called, ‘Ned! Wait for me,’ as she jumped into his shiny red convertible…”) and flatly rejected those utterly dreadful books for Christian girls, like Elsie Dinsmore and The Basket of Flowers. Barf. Even when I was little, I formed the strong opinion that saints and angels make for really tedious and boring literature.

I like reading books with complex characters, with fictional people who have both virtue AND vice, people whose stories don’t always get that shiny, happy ending. I like to read about real life. This is why I shun most of Dickens, most of the Victorians, and most fantasy literature. I don’t think it’s wrong or terrible; it’s just not my thing.

That being said, I tend to enjoy a lot of books with unhappy endings and messy characters. Here are some of my favorite morally bankrupt characters.

SCARLETT O’HARA
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell

Scarlett is the pretty poster child for morally bankrupt characters. I had seen the movie many years before I got around to reading Mitchell’s novel, and when I did, the full force of Scarlett’s personality hit me even stronger than it did on film. Mitchell managed to make someone wicked and admirable at the same time. Scarlett is selfish, manipulative, and conniving — and yet we are pulling for her the whole time. Regardless of the unpleasant racial controversies of this book, I think it is hard to deny the genius of a writer who can create a character as complex and multifaceted as this one.

BAZAROV
Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev

Bazarov is a snob. He’s like those kids who go off to grad school and become unbearably pretentious about… everything. Turgenev uses Bazarov as a standard for the young Nihilists of his Russia, the men of reason and science, rejecting all tradition and forms of authority. Bazarov fits his archetype neatly — he’s absurdly arrogant and vain — and yet, we feel for him. He gets his heart broken, even though he won’t admit it. He has a magnetic effect on people, even though no one wants to admit to actually liking him. Bazarov reminds me that people that I am quick to write off with a certain label are never that simple — and always deserving of more time and mercy.

PATTY BERGLUND
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen

Patty Berglund isn’t exactly “morally bankrupt;” rather, she doesn’t seem to know where her morals stand exactly. This might be the hallmark of Franzen’s characters (from what I can glean from the cast of people in The Corrections and Freedom, both of which I unashamedly love). Patty represents, to me, the best of what Franzen can do. She is made so real in the pages of this novel that you finish it feeling that she is your best friend, that well-loved person  In my opinion, she makes the entire novel. She is downcast and confused, but she is painfully honest and reflective about her life and its variegated failures. If we could all be as truthful with ourselves as Patty Berglund, we could learn a tremendous amount about life.

MR. HENRY WILCOX
Howards End, E.M. Forster

Mr. Wilcox is a crueler version of Jack Donaghy: He’s rich, controlling silver fox who lives by conservative business morals and generally gets whatever he wants. Including the novel’s heroine, Margaret Schlegel. Margaret is not so easily bought, however, and her goodness eventually softens Mr. Wilcox — but not before he has been brutal, demanding, and insensitive toward practically every character. Still. You like him. He doesn’t back down. And even this crusty old miser has a soft spot.

RASKOLNIKOV
Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

He murdered his old landlady with an axe for no good reason! Pinnacle of morally bankrupt. But the novel is about his SOUL. And it’s a great one. So, this book is always worth reading. (My father, by the way, still has not fulfilled his end of our challenge. He sent me a text that said: “I used to love naps. Now I hate them. Because I have to read Crime and Punishment.”)

MRS. RAMSAY
To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf

OK, so “morally bankrupt” is also far too strong a description for Mrs. Ramsay, but she’s no angel. The central character of my all-time favorite novel, Mrs. Ramsay is usually an overbearing, controlling matriarch. She sets up people who don’t necessarily want to be set up. She insists on domestic tranquility, even when emotions may need to be forcibly expressed. But I will always love Mrs. Ramsay, mainly because she is one of the deepest and most intricately drawn characters I have ever met. She chooses to live by the way of grace–and she lives well, in spite of herself.

How about you? Any quasi-villains or just ignoble characters you love reading about?

In which my father gives me an “F”

Night Fall, by Nelson DeMille.

Back story: My Dad is always getting on me about being an incomparable literature snob. I am. I totally admit it. I’m always telling him that I wish he, a very smart man, would read smart literature, too. Instead, he sticks to the likes of Clive Cussler, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton–and Nelson DeMille. So, he devised a challenge for me. We each had to present the other with a book of our choice to read as a challenge to broaden our literary horizons. I decided to make him read Crime and Punishment (Dostoevsky) and he gave me Night Fall, by Nelson DeMille.

Our family-wide e-mail discussion on Night Fall follows.

________________________________________________________________________

22 July 2011, 8:20 a.m.

FROM: Dad
TO: Me, Mom, Gran, Aunt Shelly, Kelsey, Grace, and Sam

There are now 4 of us who have read Nelson DeMille’s epic, sure to be a classic tale Nightfall.

In 100 years from now it will be taught as a single semester long course, mandatory requirement for all English Literature grad students.

Here is the course description:

Nightfall501.  A probing, in depth look into Mr. DeMille’s crowning literary achievement.  The student will dissect DeMille’s complicated allegorical content and real-life metaphorical observations during that tumultuous year (2001) where disasters, civil unrest and uncertainty were close to the hearts of all Americans.  Only DeMille can capture the spirit of the American society during this period..  What can you say about John Corey?  What can’t you say about John Corey?  This is a graduate level 5th or 6th year level course – not meant for the undergraduate student or lesser developed student, maturity-wise.

So the three of us love it and were left speechless after reading it.   One of us not so much.  Looking at the last sentence of the Nightfall501 course description I see why this is so:

… “ not meant for the undergraduate student or lesser developed student, maturity-wise.”    Abby Pratt (she is no longer a Farson because of her poopooing Nelson) lacks the mental dexterity and maturity to understand this book.  Don’t think less of her.  When she reaches literary maturity this book will blow her away.    Feel sad for Mrs. Pratt.  Pity her small, undeveloped pea brain.

JmF

—————————————————————–

22 July 2011, 9:49 a.m.

FROM: Me
TO: Dad / CC: Gran, Mom, Aunt Shelly, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, and Guion

FINAL PAPER:
NIGHTFALL 501
“John Corey and the Role of Misogyny, Machismo, and Just Plain Awful Writing in Night Fall”

John Corey, the protagonist of Nelson DeMille’s novel Night Fall, barely deserves to be called a character. Rather, he is a walking stereotype of the worst form of American machismo. Corey does not act unless the action can be construed to make him look like a badass. He speaks in a repulsive stream of cheesy puns and arrogant claims about his prowess as a detective, his ability to kill anyone, and his unstoppable libido.

Corey is unbelievable as a human, and yet we feel that we have met him before. This is because DeMille has created Corey as a Frankenstein of Hollywood’s most exaggerated and absurd action heroes. Think of all of the worst, most predictable lines ever uttered from the likes of Nicolas Cage, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Keanu Reeves–and then imagine those lines in a book. They’re all coming out of Corey’s mouth–with no sign of stopping. The man is incapable of saying anything that is not a macho jab or a pompous play on words. Like most crazy people, Corey also likes to refer to himself in the third person. “John Corey wasn’t going to just stand there and let it happen,” and other patent absurdities like that pepper the novel, despite the fact that DeMille stupidly picked Corey as his narrator.

Corey is the least complex character in modern literature, and yet DeMille seems content to have him remain this way. As a stylist, DeMille writes with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer. He relies exclusively on “gotcha” puns for all of his characters and he does not develop them beyond a mere archetypal role.

Speaking of stereotypes, let’s consider Kate Mayfield. Mayfield is a thrilling example the gross misogyny that permeates so much of American pop culture today. Let’s ignore the fact that Corey calls her, his wife, by her full name throughout the novel. (“Kate Mayfield got out of the cab and walked towards me,” he says, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be calling one’s wife by her full name throughout a 500-page narrative.)

In short, Mayfield is every American man’s dream: She’s presumably smart, but more than that, she’s sexy and really just needs a big, strong man to solve all of her problems.

Mayfield seems like a nice person, despite the fact that she seems to cook only in “tiny teddies” and that her most impressive quality is her silky blonde hair and “amazing body.” Corey tells us that Mayfield is a great FBI agent, but we never get any evidence of that. Rather, we only see her crying softly on his shoulder when her womanly emotions get too much for her. Kate Mayfield is a convenient wife for John Corey to have. She’s sexy and she has the appearance of being smart and driven–even though she is actually incapable of accomplishing anything. In the end, she has to have her case solved by her strong, mule-headed, macho husband. She sounds like an independent woman, but Mayfield is just another wilting damsel in distress.

In conclusion, Nightfall is a brilliant example of what is wrong with most of popular culture today. We should be grateful to DeMille for giving us such a stirring example of the appalling machismo that motivates so many novels and films. For this, we should regard him with appreciation.

In short, I think Twilight would have been more bearable.

—————————————————————–

22 July 2011, 10:11 a.m.

FROM: Dad
TO: Me / CC: Mom, Gran, Aunt Shelly, Kelsey, Grace, Sam, and Guion

OMG – this is the greatest email of all time!  I have tears in my eyes from reading this.  Priceless.  I am printing it out and hanging it on my office wall.

As the professor of Nightfall501 this is the kind of passion and drive I look for in my students.   Unfortunately, Abby Pratt is a retard.

Abby Pratt clearly read the book, but clearly didn’t understand a word of it.   Again the maturity (lack thereof), is evident in that the simple brilliance of the novel eludes her.

Ms. Pratt should stick to monosyllabic reads like Twilight or Old Yeller.   I suspect that her husband (Fine Arts emeritus – UVA 2012) wrote this FINAL PAPER for her.

I give Miss Pratt an F for the course.

John M. Farson

Prof. of Fine Literature and Good Things to Read

Oxford University

A 2001 Nelson DeMille Fellow

____________________________________________________________

Happy weekend!

You write like a girl

I was flattered last week when my friend Natalie, editor of the Curator Magazine, expressed an interest in my post “Are women writers inferior to men?” With her advice and my faithful husband’s edits, I turned the post into a short essay for the Curator. So, if you’re interested in reading the same thing again, you can see “You Write Like a Girl” at the Curator today. (Also check out the holga photo essay and the article on Justin Bieber.)

In other news, I’m looking forward to a relaxing weekend at home. This is my weekend of volunteering at the SPCA, so I’ll tough it out with the lovable and exhausting homeless dogs, and we’ll then celebrate Guion’s 24th birthday a few days early by grabbing dinner at the much-lauded Peter Chang’s China Grill. And reading. I need to read some hefty books. Jennifer Egan and Wallace Stegner are waiting at the library for me, but Robert Wright and Muriel Spark are still on the nightstand. Time to get cracking.

Top 10 Books of 2010: #1

The Corrections

#1: THE CORRECTIONS, Jonathan Franzen

For the past few weeks, I went wandering back through the 10 best books I read in 2010. I conclude the year’s review with these fragmented thoughts on my favorite book of the year, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.

It’s been a year of dysfunctional family epics: Ada, The Man Who Loved Children, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and now this: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. I guess I have a thing for this genre.

I know this is not the Franzen novel that everyone’s been talking about this year, but I hadn’t previously read any of his work and so I wanted to get started before Freedom came out. My reservations about “modern” literature have already been briefly expressed, but I felt like they all dissolved after I had read The Corrections.

Franzen’s ability to inhabit the dreary, seemingly hopeless Lambert family is astonishing to me. At first glance, this sounds like a supremely boring book: This middle-class family is falling apart and the mild-mannered matriarch is obsessed with getting her whole disjointed family together for Christmas one last time. Why would anyone want to read a nearly 600-page tome about that?

Well, for one thing, because Franzen is a bit of a genius. I don’t know how he does it; I really don’t. Some critics called him a “prophet.”  The Corrections came out a few weeks before 9/11. After we recovered from the shock, we began to realize that this novel was already proclaiming the domestic malaise that we would face in the post-9/11 world; it was a quiet and almost eerie warning.

To my mind, Franzen’s most impressive ability is his skill in replicating voices. Many authors do not write convincing characters of their opposite sex (Dickens and Per Petterson come to mind). Franzen does not seem troubled by this at all. In fact, I think the most believable character is the mother, Enid Lambert. Her gestures and fears are so perfectly expressed that you feel like you might have spent a lot of time with her at a long, fluorescent family reunion.

One of the most moving exchanges for me was a passage I have already written about here. Franzen most likely did not intend for this to be read religiously at all, but I read the exchange between the Lambert siblings, Denise and Chip, as the perfect description of the Gospel. We cannot stand to be forgiven. And yet over and over again, a beneficent Franzen offers his characters forgiveness. They are unwilling to extend or accept forgiveness, but they crave it, just like we do. The Corrections is a beautiful novel about the complex web of emotions that families create, but it is also a map through the labyrinth of familial tension; it’s letting you into the secret of the way out.

In short, it is one of the most full novels I have ever read. At the conclusion of David Gates’s review of The Corrections, he writes:

No one book, of course, can provide everything we want in a novel. But a book as strong as ”The Corrections” seems ruled only by its own self-generated aesthetic: it creates the illusion of giving a complete account of a world, and while we’re under its enchantment it temporarily eclipses whatever else we may have read.

The Corrections is lovely and sad and true. What more can you ask from a genuine work of art?

With that, I’ve spoken my peace about the 10 best books I read in 2010. Thanks for reading along. Now, onward to 2011! There is much to be conquered.