I used to devour books. It didn’t matter to me what they tasted like. I wanted to slice their words up with my brain-teeth and let the pulp linger a while. I read sections of the Bible in the bathroom once when I was in grade school. Another time I got busted hiding a Nintendo Power magazine under my shirt on my way in there.
Somewhere along the line I stopped eating books, but I kept collecting them. They sat around gathering dust, a bunch of neglected paper children.
Things went on this way for some time. Every once in a while I’d read a book, but it was an isolated thing.
Earlier this year I found out about the Goodreads website. I thought it might be a useful tool — a way to try and motivate myself to sharpen my teeth and wield them the way I used to. I haven’t really taken advantage of any of the social interaction offered, and I’ve only written one review. I’m not sure I have anything very meaningful or interesting or articulate to say about any of the books I’ve read, whether I’ve loved them, hated them, or felt nothing much at all about them. Still, the site has become a great resource for learning about books I might not have otherwise heard of, and that’s more than enough for me.
In the spring, I made it my goal to read as many books as I could in what remained of the year, to make up for lost time. This coincided with a reawakening of the comic lover I thought had died in me as a teenager, as I found myself with an interest in more “grown-up” comics and graphic novels that was as powerful as it was unexpected. I got off to a slow start. It took me until late summer before I fell into a solid reading rhythm.
All told, I managed to read thirty books this year — nine novels, four books of poetry, eight graphic novels, three short story collections, four memoir-ish things (five if you count one of the graphic novels), a sorta-biography, and a book of photography broken up with a few essays about feral cats. I would have read more than that, and I meant to, but the late start, the idle time spent between books trying to figure out what to read next, and some bad headaches that have dogged me through most of December conspired to keep my feet on the ground.
On the positive side, I now have a valid excuse not to look at people. Thanks, headaches! You saved my life!
Putting aside the pain that seems to have a thing for setting up shop around my left eye socket, I thought it might be worthwhile to collect some thoughts about the things I’ve been reading lately. There’s a lot in my “to read” pile I meant to get to but haven’t tackled yet — short stories by Eudora Welty and Ellen Gilchrist and John Cheever and Andre Dubus, big fat wrist-wreckers by David Foster Wallace and Norman Mailer and William Gaddis, graphic novels by Dave McKean and Joe Sacco and Art Spiegelman, memoirs and biographies, novels by Murakami and Nemirovsky and Bolano.
I’ll get to all of that in time. Here, for now, for no real reason, in no special order, are the best of the books I read this year. If any of them sound interesting to you, I recommend visiting a bookstore or library and checking them out. I can’t guarantee you’ll get out of them what I did. These are just some of the books that did it for me.
WINESBURG, OHIO (1919)
“In youth there are always two forces fighting in people. The warm unthinking little animal struggles against the thing that reflects and remembers.”
Spiritual forefather to Cheever, Carver, Ford, Faulkner, and Hemingway, among others, Sherwood Anderson published this book almost a century ago. He died in 1941 of peritonitis brought on by the accidental swallowing of a toothpick. Something attached to the part of me that’s going to hell almost wants to laugh at the absurdity of that. It’s a fate straight out of one of his own stories.
This has long been branded a “short story cycle”, but all the stories flow into one another, characters recur, and it operates as a self-contained novel when read in a single sitting. The sense of place and Anderson’s ability to make real his characters’ inner lives is startling. More than once I found myself disliking a character, only for my feelings to soften five pages later after gaining an understanding of how they got to be the way they were.
There’s a lot to absorb here for such a short book. It’s one that needs to be read more than once and will offer more to the reader each time it’s revisited, I think.
A strong warning: If you pick up the modern library paperback edition, DO NOT READ JOHN UPDIKE’S INTRODUCTION. It should have been an afterword. He gives away too many pivotal plot points and quotes the final line of the book without even throwing in a friendly, “Hey, I’m going to ruin this book for you because I’m a dick.” I was lucky enough to get wise to the spoilerific nature of the piece within the first paragraph or two, leaving it for later, but I’ll never understand why so many writers of forewords thoughtlessly spoil things better left for the reader to stumble into without knowing they’re coming. I don’t want to know how a novel ends before I’ve read the first page unless the author wants me to know.
ESSEX COUNTY (collected; 2009)
I loved strange, unsettling stories when I was a kid. The Twilight zone, The Outer Limits, Tales from the Darkside, The Hitchhiker, Alfred Hitchcock Presents — I ate it all up. I was into comic books something fierce back then too, before I knew what graphic novels were, or that they even existed. I had a special fondness for the Tales from the Crypt / Vault of Fear / Haunt of Horror triptych. Colour reprints of some of the classic issues kept me company up at the trailer in Lambton Shores more than once.
Why the fuck anyone would want to spend a week or two in a glorified pop can, where you have to walk a block or two to get to the bathrooms, the showers don’t have hot water, and there isn’t much for anyone to do aside from sitting around ruminating on how much they’d like to murder one another, I’ll never know. But that’s where we spent a good chunk of our time every summer in the bad old days. You never saw a van full of kids happier to get home when their “vacation” was over.
I felt like I outgrew comics around the time I hit puberty. I grew back into them as a bearded person, when I learned there were a lot of things out there that appealed to my changed sensibilities, whatever they changed into. One afternoon at Indigo Books, Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder caught my eye, and a quote on the back cover describing it as the equivalent of a great unproduced Twilight Zone episode convinced me to buy it. The thing felt nice in my hands, too, which didn’t hurt any.
The story was a little like a feature-length, grown-up version of some of the more grounded science fiction-y tales that slipped into Tales from the Crypt once in a while, with the spooky business taking a back seat to character development, making it that much more effective. Note to Hollywood assholes: the possibility of something nasty happening to a character is a lot more frightening when the audience cares about that character on some level.
Welder has some pretty meaningful things to say about memory, commitment, and the way we treat the people who love us. Reading it was time well spent, and I think it was a good introduction to Jeff. It made me a fan. But Essex County is in an altogether different league.
The more of Jeff’s work I read, the more I appreciate his unique artwork. It’s raw and scratchy. It’s not often “pretty” in the conventional sense, but there’s a stark beauty to it that’s perfect for the kind of stories he tells. I love how he draws his characters in a way that makes them look like real people, not through hyper-realism, but by failing to idealize them. They have flaws — big or crooked noses, lines from age and hard living, receding hairlines, out-of-shape bodies, tired eyes.
The flaws aren’t just physical. The people in Essex County screw up. They make mistakes. They can’t always make things right, in their own lives or the lives of those they care for.
This all has a way of keeping things grounded when surreal elements come into play, and there are a number of perfect little grace notes that would probably be impossible outside of the comic form. One character walks through his memories while slipping in and out of senility, eavesdropping on his own life. At one point, his face becomes the moon in the sky as he watches himself do something he’s spent years wishing he could take back.
The old man is witness to one of the great sins of his youth as a weeping satellite. Think for a second about how brilliant that is.
This is a collection of what were originally three separate graphic novels, but they belong together, and they tell one large story. When it’s explained how everything is connected, it feels organic, and not like the cheap deus ex machina that sort of thing can sometimes devolve into when left in the wrong hands.
Two incidental but very cool things:
1. Some of the musical references are surprising. in a photograph taken in the 1950s (well, a drawing of a fictional photograph taken in the 50s), a character is holding a Duke Ellington vinyl LP. In a “deleted scene” included in the bonus material, a different character is listening to a John Cale album. For this alone, Jeff Lemire earns six thousand cool points.
2. This is very nearly a local tale. There are even a few references to Windsor. Yay Windsor!
THE ROAD (2006)
“In dreams his pale bride came to him out of a green and leafy canopy. Her nipples pipeclayed and her rib bones painted white. She wore a dress of gauze and her dark hair was carried up in combs of ivory, combs of shell. Her smile, her downturned eyes. In the morning it was snowing again. Beads of small gray ice strung along the lightwires overhead.
He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the call of languor and of death. He slept little and he slept poorly. He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.
From daydreams on the road there was no waking. He plodded on. He could remember everything of her save her scent. Seated in a theatre with her beside him leaning forward listening to the music. Gold scrollwork and sconces and the tall columnar folds of the drapes at either side of the stage. She held his hand in her lap and he could feel the tops of her stockings through the thin stuff of her summer dress. Freeze this frame. Now call down your dark and your cold and be damned.”
I’ve always been a sucker for a good post-apocalyptic tale. This one is made visceral and real in a way most aren’t.
More than any other writer I’ve read, Cormac McCarthy makes me wish I had a naked woman on my knee to read his words aloud to. Those words come alive in a whole new way when spoken. But I like the way they dance around inside my skull, too. So that’ll do just fine for now.
I find I become a slower-than-usual reader with McCarthy. It isn’t that his prose is “difficult”. It’s that there are so many moments that are so striking, I want to revel in them for a while before moving on.
I will never watch the film adaptation of this novel — not just because I’ve learned the dialogue was altered, but because some of the book’s best moments are unfilmable. You can’t film the pictures a writer paints in your mind with their command of language. You need to dream those pictures in your own time.
CAMPFIRE RADIO RHAPSODY (2011)
Robert Earl Stewart
Bob is someone I know. For years I’ve been meaning to give him the extra copy I have of a CD of pre-Hex Bark Psychosis EPs and singles. Maybe now that I’ve written it here I’ll remember. There’s a poem in one of his books dedicated to me, about a strange character we’ve had fleeting mutual contact with.
But I ain’t biased. The dude can write. I mean really, really write.
I re-read both of his books of poetry late in the year. Of the two, I think the second, Campfire Radio Rhapsody, has the edge for me. But only just. Each book is punctuated by a lengthy, stunning centerpiece. In his first collection, Something Burned Along the Southern Border, it’s “Flicker Rate”, a suite of poems that deal unflinchingly with the loss of a parent. In Campfire Radio Rhapsody, it’s “The County Reporter”, a mesmerizing multi-part poem that touches on, among other things, the sad death of a former mayor-turned-blackjack dealer.
I enjoyed both of these books even more the second time through. And I’d quote something, but there so many great moments, I wouldn’t know where to start.
THREE SHADOWS (2008)
Cyril Pedrosa; translated by Edward Gauvin
A young boy lives an idyllic existence on a remote farm with his mother and father. One night, he sees three dark, featureless figures on a hill looking in on him through his bedroom window. The ominous figures grow closer and more frightening. They don’t explain themselves. The parents come to understand they’re harbingers of death who mean to take their child. While the mother does her best to prepare for the inevitable and make the most of what time remains, father and son set out on a perilous journey in an effort to literally outrun death.
If I were a parent, I think this graphic novel would have destroyed me. I’m not a parent. I don’t ever plan to be. But I don’t think the absence of children mutes any of the book’s power. It just allows it to pummel you in a different way.
This is a moving tale of love, sacrifice, loss, and the painful tug of mortality. And it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s humour and happiness here as well, and at least half a dozen characters you end up wishing you could hug, along with a few you want to strangle.
Cyril Pedrosa’s black and white artwork, drawn with pencil, pen, and charcoal, is some of the most expressive I’ve seen — never more so than during the nighttime scenes. His use of light and dark is masterful, and he enriches his profound fable with wonderfully unique character design and no end of great little details tucked away in the background. One of my favourite visual jokes: in an early panel, the father smokes a pipe while the mother reads a book called The Art of Stew, an expression of total bewilderment on her face.
To date, this is the only work by Frenchman Pedrosa to be translated into English. If the rest of what he’s done is half as good as Three Shadows, that needs to change.
“Sylvester the nude mummified man at Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe was not the first dead person I had seen, but he was my most influential one. He had a piece of ancient cloth over his privates but otherwise he was completely exposed.
The sign that explained him said he had been found in the desert. It was the heat and the sun that dried him out before he had a chance to rot. You need moisture to rot correctly. Bacteria and certain insects that help the process have to have moisture. But if you croak in the middle of the desert during a hot time of year, all of your moisture can go very quickly and your skin can shrink fast onto your bones and if the blowing sand rolls gently over you it can make you smooth and shiny. Sylvester was smooth and shiny. His eyes were collapsed, understandably, but his mustache was there. His lips were very shrunken but there was no mistaking the reality of his teeth. Very yellow, the front teeth slightly overlapping. His arms were crossed over his stomach and his toes were pointed and the sign said to look for the bullet hole and it was there, easy to see in his chest. The one thing that kept bothering me was that they displayed him standing up.
If it was me doing the display I would have had him laying down. I would have had sand in the case. I would have made it look as realistic as possible and most of all, I would not have covered his vulnerables. I would have wanted everything displayed. In the interest of science. To show what happens to a dead man’s pecker in the sun. I thought it even before what happened, happened. but I wouldn’t count that as ESP.”
This book was given to me a few years ago. A gift from a friend. It took me much longer than it should have to sit down and read it.
Cruddy is the tale of a 16-year-old girl named Roberta, whose father calls her Clyde (he wanted a son), who has a knife named Little Debbie, who exists in a sort of living hell, with her parents acting as two opposing satanic forces. The narrative is delivered in the first person. It’s alternately horrifying and hilarious. Often it’s both of those things at once. Her father (referred to only as “The Father”) emerges as one of the most compelling characters, monstrous as he is.
Two stories that take place five years apart are woven together seamlessly. On every page there’s a phrase or passage worth quoting, and Barry’s drawings — rendered in charcoal, I think — are crude but reveal themselves to be a perfect visual accent.
The blurb on the back cover describes the story as “part Easy Rider and part bipolar Wizard of Oz.” That’s not a half-bad miniature capsule review.
THE ARRIVAL (2006)
Anyone who thinks comics and graphic novels aren’t art needs to sit down and read this thing.
If a graphic novel can be thought of as a film you hold in your hands, this would be a silent movie. There’s no dialogue or narrative text. Everything you need to know is relayed through images. The artwork moves from awesome realism to alien landscapes as alluring as they are strange. One of the quotes on the back cover is from Art Spiegelman, who describes The Arrival as “a documentary magically told by way of surrealism”. I think that just about nails it.
It’s the story of a man who immigrates to a new land in the hope of making a better life for his family. The new city/country/place in which the nameless protagonist tries to find his way is full of architecture, objects, and animals that have the strange logic of dreams. This allows the reader to experience something of the wonder and fear of being a stranger in a strange land. The man finds people who become something like friends, as fleeting as their moments of connection are, and they find ways of being understood to one other. Some of these people are fellow immigrants, and their own stories play out in haunting silent flashbacks.
One scene that I think is a perfect example of the way Shaun Tan arrives at a kind of heightened emotional realism through surrealism (EMOTIONAL SPOILER WARNING): the man finds an apartment in the new place he’s trying to acclimate to. All of the appliances are unusual and confusing. Inside a ceramic container he finds an animal that resembles the product of a tryst between a dog and a benevolent lizard. He places his suitcase on his bed. When he opens it, for a moment he sees his wife and child inside, eating breakfast without him, the viscera of the luggage having become the kitchen of his home. Then it’s just clothes inside. Clothes and a picture of him with them. He hammers a nail into the wall of his new bedroom with his shoe, hangs the picture where he can see it, and sits and stares, a world away from the people he loves, while his new animal friend is perched on the window sill, watching him.
I don’t think I’ve come across a truer rendering of what it really feels like to miss someone, in any art form.
This is one of the deepest, most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and it’s entirely bereft of words. I think my being moved by it could have something to do with the history of immigration in my own family. In the Second World War my great grandfather left Czechoslovakia during the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland, bringing his wife and young son with him to Canada where he changed their (our) last name from Weiss to West. He had to leave everything he’d known behind and start over in a place where nothing was familiar to him. I’d never thought much about how I’m only a few generations removed from that, never wondered much about what it might have been like for him when he first came here, but reading this made me think, and it made me wonder, and it warmed the knotted thing that lives inside my chest after kicking at it a few times.
WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE (1962)
What a deliciously unsettling little book this is, right from the opening paragraph:
“My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita Phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.”
This works as an interesting companion piece to lynda barry’s Cruddy. Here again is a teenage narrator with a somewhat skewed worldview she takes her time explaining. Mary Katherine (often called “Merricat”) is one of the most fascinating unreliable narrators I’ve encountered in any book I’ve read. She practices her own brand of sympathetic witchcraft, feels protective toward her older sister Constance (who hasn’t left the house in six years), listens to the stories her cat Jonas tells her (“All cat stories start with this statement: ‘My mother, who was the first cat, told me this…'”), and harbours a violent contempt for anyone and anything that threatens to encroach upon the isolation she lives in with Constance, Jonas, and her sickly Uncle Julian.
Shirley Jackson is probably best known for The Lottery — a hugely-influential, often-imitated (if not outright plagiarized) short story that’s an abject lesson in how to build tension at an almost subliminal level while working up to a horrifying reveal. I think that short story reads something like a dress rehearsal for this book, which ratchets up the unease, madness, paranoia, and persecution to a whole new level of intensity.
In other words, it’s good light bedtime reading. And while the ending was not at all what I was expecting, it was weirdly satisfying.
Again, if you find yourself with a copy of this book that has an introduction, don’t read it until after you’ve read the book itself. It’ll spoil all the fun.
SLEEPWALK AND OTHER STORIES (1997)
The comic equivalent of a collection of short fiction, this brings together the first four issues of Adrian Tomine’s Optic Nerve series.
There’s something a little Raymond Carver-ish about these tales. They have the sense of small pockets of life being lived in all their messy, mostly-low-key glory, and several of them involve people trying — and usually failing — to connect.
Some of the characters are not very likeable at all, and many of the stories have brutal endings that range from “this is painfully real” to “my skin is crawling”. Of the sixteen in this book, I counted two that end on a somewhat hopeful note, and one of those is debatable. I can handle that kind of grimness…though “Pink Frosting” is disturbing stuff, capturing the horror, senselessness, and awful stupidity of random violence in just two pages. Don’t read that one if you’re in a squeamish frame of mind.
“Lunch Break” is devastating in a different, quieter way. Likewise with “Supermarket”, in which (SPOILER! SPOILER! THIS IS A SPOILER! DRINK A PRUNE JUICE AND CUCUMBER SMOOTHIE AND SKIP TO THE NEXT PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED!) a friendly blind man is helped by the same young woman every time he visits the grocery store. You start to think she’s something of an ally. Then you see her outside of the store, walking with a friend. She notices the blind man coming her way, and she stops speaking so he won’t recognize her and she won’t have to acknowledge him when she isn’t obligated to.
Fist, meet stomach.
The one minor quibble I have here is with the heavy use of textual narration. While it works well for the most part, in a few places it might have been more effective to show without telling. Then again, some stories in this book do just that, with no narrative text at all and good use of silent panels.
I’m glad I read this one, but by the time I was finished I felt a great need to watch a YouTube video of a kitten doing something cute, to remind myself there are creatures in this world that aren’t thoroughly selfish and shitty.
THE SOUND AND THE FURY (1929)
I wasn’t sure where to start with Faulkner.
I read Light in August was an example of his writing at the peak of its powers, married to a story that didn’t require a lot of mental heavy lifting. I read As I Lay Dying was a good way to get your feet wet in deeper water without drowning, though you still might fall in and get soaked. And I couldn’t seem to find anything to read about The Sound and the Fury where the words “difficult” and “inaccessible” didn’t crop up six million times.
I read a lot of things, about a lot of the books the man wrote. None of it did much to help me make a decision. I decided to go ahead and drown in The Sound and the Fury.
Part of me wishes I hadn’t waited so long to start reading Faulkner. I think I was a little intimidated, not sure I would be smart enough to “get” his writing. And I think if I’d read this book when I was in high school it would have exploded my brain. But I’m here now, writing this, and my brain is still intact. I think.
Some people feel this is Faulkner’s masterpiece, and one of the finest novels anyone has ever written. Some people hate it. Others don’t know what to feel about it or what it all means. Faulkner himself called it “a real son-of-a-bitch”. I think that’s about right.
It’s a difficult book to write about without giving away too much. So if you’re planning on reading it and you want to go in cold, I’d scroll down to the next book.
There are four long chapters. In some editions there’s an appendix that serves as a shorter fifth chapter. The story follows the slow erosion of the Compson family. The first three chapters are narrated by each of the sons in turn, from oldest to youngest: the mentally handicapped “man-child” Benjy, incapable of speech; the articulate but troubled Quentin; and the vile, abrasive narcissist that is Jason. The fourth chapter and the appendix are both written in the voice of an omniscient third-person observer. There are no mini-breaks of any kind within individual chapters, and until the appendix the only paragraph breaks are indentations. There’s very little white space.
“Dense” is the word.
Benjy is much more intuitive than most of the other characters pick up on, but because of his handicap he has no real concept of time. His narration flits in and out of several time levels without clear segue or explanation, bouncing from childhood to adolescence to adulthood and back again. I cheated a little and used a spoiler-free trick to try and keep track of what was happening when, based on who Benjy’s caretaker was in any given moment, but it did nothing to lessen the disorientation of the opening chapter.
Quentin’s chapter is much more linear and straightforward to begin with, before flying even further off the rails, and here Faulkner lets loose with some staggering stream-of-consciousness writing — long, mesmerizing passages with no punctuation, action and dialogue and thought all bleeding and blurring into one another in a seemingly heedless onslaught of words.
Jason’s chapter is the most conventional of them all but was the hardest for me to get through. He’s a hateful, hate-filled, racist, amoral, selfish, misogynistic character, and what he says and does ranges from pitch-black humour to grotesque cruelty. Then the final chapter settles into an altogether different rhythm, with all the characters seen objectively for the first and only time.
Caddy Compson, the only daughter, is arguably the deepest, most interesting character here. She alone seems to understand what’s in Benjy’s mind. She’s the only one who tries to communicate with him, who he can communicate with, who gives him a voice. Once she’s no longer a part of his life, what voice he had is gone.
All of her brothers obsess over her in one way or another — wrestling with the memory of her, the idea of her, their inability or unwillingness to accept or understand the reality of her. Benjy is the only one who sees her with something like objective eyes. Quentin is blinded by love or what he thinks is love, Jason by hate or something beyond hate. They both try to make her into something she isn’t, and punish her in different ways for failing to match up to their picture of who she’s supposed to be. By the time the third-person narrator shows up for the last chapter, Caddy is gone altogether, just a ghost haunting the house her name will never be heard inside of again.
Benjy just sees her, and loves her for who she is, and misses her when she’s gone, and that’s all there is.
More than the sad fate of Benjy, more than the tragic disintegration of Quentin, more than the ugliness of Jason, this is really Caddy’s story. She’s the bruised heart of the whole book. But we never get to see her point of view. She’s never there in the telling. Only the told-about. She’s always just out of reach, never coming all the way into focus, only a memory that lives in the minds of three completely unreliable narrators. Somehow all of this makes her more heartbreaking and real, and it makes her absence palpable.
I don’t think there are many writers who could pull off a trick like that. Faulkner does, and he makes it more than just trickery. He gives it real power and weight.
All the experimentation and twisting of form and telling the same story from four different perspectives wouldn’t amount to much if the writing wasn’t any good. But man, is it good. On one page, you get this:
“He stood there beside the gaunt rabbit of a mule, the two of them shabby and motionless and unimpatient. The train swung around the curve, the engine puffing with short, heavy blasts, and they passed smoothly from sight that way, with that quality about them of shabby and timeless patience, of static serenity: that blending of childlike and ready incompetence and paradoxical reliability that tends and protects them it loves out of all reason and robs them steadily and evades responsibility and obligations by means too barefaced to be called subterfuge even and is taken in theft or evasion with only that frank and spontaneous admiration for the victor which a gentleman feels for anyone who beats him in a fair contest, and withal a fond and unflagging tolerance for whitefolks’ vagaries like that of a grandparent for unpredictable and troublesome children, which I had forgotten.”
Then two pages later, you get:
“The displacement of water is equal to the something of something.”
This is the way to read this book, I think: let it wash over you the first time through, orienting yourself as well as you can from moment to moment. Resist the urge to read some shit on the internet that spells everything out in easy, bite-sized bullet points. Faulkner knew what he was doing. Everything falls into place eventually, and if you don’t put in the work of fighting through the difficult parts and untangling what’s really going on, you cheat yourself out of some powerful payoffs. If you’re lucky enough to have a printing that includes the appendix, anything that still doesn’t make sense when you’re finished should be explained there, though if it wasn’t for a great additional bit about Caddy that offers some small amount of closure I’d say it isn’t necessary. If you’re unlucky enough to have a printing that sticks the appendix at the beginning of the book, treating it as a foreword, ignore it and save it for last, if you read it at all.
Then double back and read Benjy’s chapter again, and marvel at how much easier it is to read and how much more sense it makes the second time through — the way the whole thing seems to change shape, and all that seemed random or maddeningly obscure the first time through is now clear as polished glass.
Or you could take the advice Faulkner himself gave in an interview with The Paris Review.
“Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they have read it two or three times,” the interviewer said. “What approach would you suggest for them?”
Faulkner’s response: “Read it four times.”
I can see why some people don’t like this book. I don’t think it’s for everyone. A lot of readers don’t even make it past the first chapter. Me, I tore through the whole thing in two days, and when I was finished, a great feeling of satisfaction came over me — not because of the way the story ends (it’s a soul-crushing book), but because the thing is so mutable and dense and there’s so much inside of it, it hit me that each reading after the first will be a wholly new experience. And there ain’t many books I can say that about.
Now, get this — James Franco is working on a film adaptation of this book. He’s going to direct, star in it, and write the treatment, as he’s already done with As I Lay Dying. If ever there was a book that no film could ever hope to translate, it’s this one. But here comes Harry Osbourne to save the day.
I don’t have as much contempt for James Franco as some do, even if I’d be justified in wanting to see him pelted with diarrhea-filled water balloons after what happened to me a few years ago when his name was invoked (long story). But if that movie gets made, somebody kill me so I don’t ever have to see or read a thing about it. Thanks in advance.
DETROIT: AN AMERICAN AUTOPSY (2013)
Living just across the river from Detroit for most of my life, I’ve always wondered how it all went so wrong over there. This book doesn’t answer all of my questions, but it isn’t meant to. It’s probably best described by LeDuff himself when he writes:
“This is not a book about geopolitics or macroeconomics or global finance. And it is not a feel-good story with a happy ending. It is a book of reportage. A memoir of a reporter returning home — only he cannot find the home he once knew. This is a book about living people getting on with the business of surviving in a place that has little use for anyone anymore except those left here. It is about waking up one morning and being told you are obsolete and not wanting to believe it but knowing it’s true. It is a book about a rough town and a tough people during arguably some of the most historic and cataclysmic days in the American experience. It is a book about family and cops and criminals and factory workers. It is about corrupt politicians and a collapsing newspaper. It is about angry people fighting and crying and snatching hold of one another trying to stay alive.”
The odd overcooked metaphor and one or two clumsy turns of phrase aside (how the editor’s scalpel missed a clunker like “occasionally interrupted by the occasional tick tick of an editor’s key strokes” is beyond me), this is vivid, unsentimental, you-are-there writing about a city that’s been dying a slow death for a long time and the people who go on living in its husk. The passages about the broken-down fire department and Charlie’s doomed sister are especially powerful — sometimes hard to read, but just as hard to turn away from. And the political stuff is disturbing comic gold.
On a random note, “Lipstick and Laxatives” is going on my list of favourite chapter titles ever.
A woman working the cash at Indigo recommended this one to me when she saw I was buying Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. If I ever see her in there again, I’ll be sure to thank her. It’s a good read.
“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”
I read the short story Harrison Bergeron in grade twelve English class. As thought-provoking as it was brief, it should have inspired me to read more Vonnegut. It probably would have, if not for an English teacher who found a way to make me hate what had always been my favourite subject. She taught something like “assembly-line English”. Anything we read or wrote was picked apart until there was no beauty or mystery left. She wanted everything to read like it came out of a soulless textbook. I took to handing in free-association bullshit papers just to spite her, knowing nothing I wrote would ever make her happy, going out of my way to fail as an impotent act of rebellion. Somehow I managed to pass the class anyway.
Her high school English class was at least part of the reason I went so long without reading much of anything outside of the internet. Getting a home computer with internet access for the first time just before graduating helped there too, but it took some time to scrape the residue of her literary emasculation off of my brain. It was a while before I could get back to a place where I enjoyed reading just for the sake of it.
I’ve owned a copy of Slaughterhouse-Five for something like eight years, but I always forgot I had it. During a recent re-organizing adventure I found it again and made a new home for it on a bookshelf in my bedroom. I kept meaning to read it, until I stopped meaning to and started reading, and then I went on reading until I was finished, and then the thing had been read.
Maybe I didn’t read so much as I listened. This book is a song about death, time, war, and alien abduction, with a mantric three-word refrain that recurs each time something dies. And many things die. “So it goes”, goes the refrain. There isn’t a single semicolon. Vonnegut famously hated the things, calling them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”.
For the first ninety-odd pages, I liked the song a lot without loving it. The membrane between like and love was thin, but very much there. It takes a special sort of magic to make me fall in love with a book.
Then came a scene in which the main character, Billy Pilgrim — who has come “unstuck in time” and drops in on different parts of his life at random, with no control over the when or where of it all — experiences a concentrated time blip that enables him to watch a war film in reverse, warping the destruction into a freakish kind of healing. There was the magic. I laughed the kind of unintentional sound you make when you’re delighted by a moment of unexpected ingenuity. I listened to the rest of the song with love in my eyes, and went to sleep with its rhythm still pounding in my head.
If I were giving these books star-based ratings, this would get four out of five. I’m not sure why it wouldn’t get a perfect score. Maybe there’s a love beyond love and I didn’t quite find it here. Maybe I’ll find it the next time around, or in another Vonnegut book.
WINTER’S BONE (2006)
“She took to pausing more often to study on things that weren’t usually of interest. She sniffed the air like it might somehow have changed flavors and looked closely at the stone fencerow, touched the stones and hefted a few, held them to her face, saw a rabbit that didn’t try to run until she laughed at it, smelled Victoria on her sleeves and hunkered atop a stump to think. She spread her skirt taut across her knees and tucked the extra under her legs. Those stones had probably been piled by direct ancestors and for a long while she tried to conjure their pioneer lives and think if she saw parts of their lives showing in her own. With her eyes closed she could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who had so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from something that sounded wet in the lungs. The men came to mind as mostly idle between nights of running wild or time in the pen, cooking moon and gathering around the spout, with ears chewed, fingers chopped, arms shot away, and no apologies grunted ever. The women came to mind bigger, closer, with their lonely eyes and homely yellow teeth, mouths clamped against smiles, working in the hot fields from can to can’t, hands tattered rough as dry cobs, lips cracked all winter, a white dress for marrying, a black dress for burying, and ree nodded yup. Yup.”
As with The Road, I knew this was a movie before I knew it was a book, and I knew who the actors involved were. When I was reading The Road, the faces I formed for The Man and The Boy weren’t any I’d ever seen before. Here some of Jennifer Lawrence’s features slipped into my mind’s rendering of Ree. Brains are strange things.
In Winter’s Bone, sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly is caretaker to her two younger brothers and their near-catatonic mother. Her absentee father cooks meth and has put the house up as part of his bond. He’s skipped bail. If he doesn’t make his next court date, the house will be sold from under what’s left of the family, leaving them “dogs in the fields”. It’s left to Ree to find her father. If he’s alive, she needs to get him to show up in court. If he’s dead, she needs to find his body.
Two words kept coming to mind here: bleak and beautiful. A man pissing against the wall of a shed becomes poetry. How do you even do that? How do you write about something like that and make it compelling? I don’t know, but Daniel Woodrell does.
I don’t often fear for the characters in a book I’m reading, even if I’m emotionally involved. I feared for Ree. She visits some dangerous places in search of her father, and as resilient and brave as she is, there’s a slow-creeping feeling of dread hanging over everything. Her survival isn’t a certainty.
Ree and her volatile Uncle Teardrop are two great characters. Teardrop is a wonderful fictional creation all on his own. He’s built to look like a potential villain early on and then he’s absent for almost half the book, before returning to reveal unexpected depths without ever becoming a hero.
The film adaptation is another one I probably won’t be seeing, as well-reviewed as it was. I’m a big fan of John Hawkes (the dude was in Deadwood, after all), and J. Law can sing with me any old time she likes, but as with The Road, I just don’t see how the movie can measure up. No film is getting you inside the head of Ree like Daniel Woodrell’s writing does. And it drives me batty when directors and screenwriters alter things that don’t need altering.
In the book Ree has two brothers. In the film she has a sister and a brother. How does that play any better on the screen than two brothers? What the hell is the point in changing a thing like that? In the book, it’s mentioned a few times that Ree wants to enlist in the army. We get the point. Well, Mr. Screenwriter says, “You can’t just refer to a thing like that obliquely and leave it be. People are fucking dumb! You have to spell it out for them. Let’s write a scene where Ree actually tries to enlist! It’ll be poignant! And we’ll throw some manipulative music on the soundtrack so the audience knows how they’re supposed to feel about everything, in case they don’t already know! Because they need to be guided every step of the way.”
No thanks, Mr. Screenwriter. You can kiss my well-used rectal thermometer. I’ll stick with the book.
I had this plan, when I was starting to gather some tangible reading momentum, to alternate prose and graphic novels. It didn’t stick. But I did manage to read a healthy dose of graphic novels, even if the books of prose outweighed them by a pretty large margin in the end.
This one originated as a serialized web comic. You’d never guess. It works well in physical book form as one larger undisturbed thing.
Hector “Heck” Hammarskjöld, a former high school quarterback, inherits his estranged sorcerer father’s house when the old man dies. He always felt there was something not quite right about the place, and after moving back in as an adult he learns where the bad vibes were coming from: there’s a portal to hell in the basement.
So he does what any sensible person would do, and starts his own business as an Inheritance Consultant, specializing in “posthumous closure”. Got a loved one you think might be in hell? He’ll go down there and bring them a message for you, or bring one back from them. One day an old flame knocks on his door and hires him to deliver a letter to her late husband, and Heck and his tiny mummy sidekick go to hell to take care of business.
This sounds like a fun, silly little pulpy comic. And it kind of starts out that way. Then it gets dark and deep in a hurry. There’s a story behind the mummy sidekick that isn’t funny at all. Hell is not a nice place. You don’t want to know what happens to thieves and traitors. And just because you’re only a visitor there to do a job, it doesn’t mean you won’t have to wrestle with literal and figurative demons of your own.
A relatively quick read, but a good one, with a few nice surprises up its sleeve.
THE STORIES OF BREECE D’J PANCAKE (1983)
Breece D’J Pancake
Breece Pancake was born and grew up in West Virginia, looked something like Will Oldham the man when Will Oldham was still a boy, taught English at Virginia military schools, studied creative writing, and blew his head off with a shotgun in 1979, when he was twenty-six years old. At the time of his death he had published six short stories. This book collects those six, and six more.
There’s something in this spare-but-evocative kind of writing that speaks to me in places I didn’t know needed speaking-to. It’s there in Winesburg, Ohio. It’s there in Raymond Carver. It’s there in Cormac McCarthy, if a bit more knotted and thick. And it’s here too. But it’s different each time. Each voice speaks in its own way. If the language is sometimes similar, the vocabulary is never the same.
Breece pared his stories down until there wasn’t a wasted word. Each sentence reads like it was carved from something true, into something more than true. About half the stories are written in the first-person present tense, which isn’t something I’ve seen much of anywhere else. One story is in the third-person, but from a female character’s point of view. I don’t imagine that’s easy to do as a man, no matter how skilled you are with words.
It works. It all works.
It’s a shame he was gone so soon. But after reading James Alan McPherson’s foreword, I think I understand why he made the choice he did. It’s possible to die of inarticulate loneliness. Breece was free in the dark mist of his stories, but outside of them he was one of his characters, torn between where he came from and where he wanted to be, trying to escape from and return to the first place while not sure what the other was.
The beginning of “Fox Hunters” makes me wish he’d written an entire novel from the perspective of an animal:
“The passing of an autumn night left no mark on the patchwork blacktop of the secondary road that led to Parkins. A gray ooze of light began to crest the eastern hills above the hollow and sift a blue haze through the black bowels of linking oak branches. A small wind shivered, and sycamore leaves chattered across the pavement but were stopped by the fighting-green orchard grass on the berm.
The opossum lay quietly by the roadside. She had found no dead farm animals in which to build her winter den; not even a fine empty hole. She packed her young across the road and into the leaves where the leathery carcass of another opossum lay. She did not pause for sniffing or sentiment.
Metalclick. She stopped. Fire. She hunkered in tight fear against the ground, her young clutching closer to her fur. Soft, rhythmless clumpings excited her blood, and she sank lower. With day and danger advancing, fear was blushing in her as she backed cautiously into higher brush. From her hiding, she watched a giant enemy scuffling on the blacktop, and a red glow bouncing brightly in the remnant of her night.”
THE FARAWAY NEARBY (2013)
“Listen: you are not yourself, you are crowds of others, you are as leaky a vessel as was ever made, you have spent vast amounts of your life as someone else, as people who died long ago, as people who never lived, as strangers you never met. The usual I we are given has all the tidy containment of the kind of character the realist novel specializes in and none of the porousness of our every waking moment, the loose threads, the strange dreams, the forgettings and misrememberings, the portions of a life lived through others’ stories, the incoherence and inconsistency, the pantheon of dei ex machina and the companionability of ghosts. There are other ways of telling.”
Of all the books I read this year, this one took the longest to finish. It’s not that it’s a difficult read. I think it’s that there’s so much in it that stimulates thought and feeling, it just took me a while to absorb everything.
The book begins and ends as something of a memoir. In-between it fans out in many other directions and becomes a book about impermanence, about leprosy and the strange arc of Che Guevara’s life, about fairytales, about fruit preserves, about stories and how we tell them, how and why their meanings shift, what feeds them, and what they feed to those who are there for the telling. It’s written mise en abyme, chapters arranged as mirrors of themselves, with an additional chapter running through the entire book at the bottom of each page like a news ticker — an afterword that’s everywhere.
This book also contains a “review” of mary shelley’s Frankenstein that is one of the most insightful reviews of anything I’ve read anywhere, ever.
I could throw in a few more graphic novels (like David Small’s Stitches and Brandon Graham’s King City), but I figure that’s about enough. I mean, how much of me rambling about books do you want to read?! What are you, some kind of PERSON WHO READS THINGS?! BLASPHEMER! EYE-MONSTER! BE GONE!