Read

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At the beginning of the year, I set a goal on Goodreads to read 50 books this year. When I was working on my bachelor’s in English literature, reading 50 books in twelve months was no problem. I can remember one particular semester where I had to read 35 books for all of my classes combined. But since navigating full time employment is a new experience for me, I figured 50 would be a pretty good, low-stakes goal to set for myself. So far, I’ve read 22 of the 50 books and wanted to share a few that I particularly loved.

  1. Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger. JD Salinger is one of those love him or hate him authors, and personally, I love him. No one does a first person narrator quite like he does. Franny and Zooey is told using multiple perspective narration, and in typical Salinger fashion, these narrative voices are really well done and are the devices that drive the story. Franny and Zooey follows the two youngest siblings in a family of intellectual prodigies as one of them experiences a spiritual and existential crisis and the other attempts to talk to her out of it. The entire novel centers on this one plot point, but because of the distinctness of the voices, it’s a dynamic and fascinating read.
  2. Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong. As a genre, I adore poetry, but a lot of modern print poetry really frustrates me. I know these are unpopular opinions, but I’m not a fan of poets such as Rupi Kaur or Michael Faudet. I don’t like love poems or those trendy typewritten poems you might reblog on Tumblr. What I do love are poems that are complex and beautiful and ugly and painfully real. And I think Ocean Vuong’s collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds is exactly that. This collection explores the poet’s painful early domestic life, the challenges of coming into his identity, and the wounds inflicted upon his Vietnamese heritage. These poems are the type of poems you want to read out loud so you can hear them as you see them. I loved this collection so much I read every poem twice.
  3. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib. Another one of my favorite modern poets is Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib who explores race in modern America through the motif of music and stories of his own life and growing up in Columbus, Ohio. In my degree, I focused on nineteenth century British literature, the canon for which is comprised mainly of wealthy white guys. The result is that, while I read an insane number of books and poems in college, the selection of authors was not incredibly diverse. Now that I have a few months when I’m not constantly reading for school, I’m trying to read more works from writers of different races, ethnicities, genders, etc. I think it’s important to do so. I believe that literature confronts us with different perspectives and experiences that we may not be privy to ourselves and that it’s important – especially now – to listen to those perspectives and experiences, because that’s how we love each other. I highly, highly, highly recommend this collection. For one thing, it’s incredible in terms of poetic merit, but also because it’s brutally honest. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I imagine it’s relatable to many people in a way that much canonized literature isn’t. And for those of us who cannot directly relate, it challenges us to listen – really listen – to a reality other than our own. I would also recommend listening to some of Willis-Abdurraqib’s performances on YouTube so you can hear his inflections and the lyricism of the poems.
  4. Swing Time by Zadie Smith. Zadie Smith is so well-known and celebrated that you likely don’t need encouragement from me to read her work. Swing Time is her latest novel and it follows a nameless narrator from childhood to adulthood, the competition between her and her childhood best friend, her employment as a personal assistant to a pop star, and her relationship with her mother. Threaded throughout the nonlinear narrative is the narrator’s evolving understanding of race, and this exploration is rooted by the motif of dance. It seems to me that several of the characters represent distinct types of people that are characterized by their responses to and opinions on race. Zadie Smith is a ridiculously intelligent human and talented writer, and this is one of those novels that stayed on my mind for a while after I read it because I was trying to work out in my mind everything that the novel was saying and doing (which is a lot).
  5. Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer. I love everything Jonathan Safran Foer writes, because all of his novels leave me with that punch-in-the-gut sad feeling. Just read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and you’ll see what I mean. I picked up Here I Am on principle and was not disappointed. The book follows a Jewish family as they experience domestic tragedy and natural disaster and the narrator explores what it means to be Jewish in modern America versus Jewish in modern Israel versus Jewish in the Holocaust versus Jewish in biblical times. What really moved me about this book was how Foer explored the idea of constructed meanings and inherited narratives and how those things affect the ways in which we grieve tragedies. There’s a scene in the novel where a rabbi deconstructs the story of Moses floating down the river in a basket in order to demonstrate the effects of Jewish history upon modern Jewish identity and grief that left me literally crying at my desk at work. Overall, this book is complex and moving and definitely worth reading despite how heavy it will make your purse or backpack or whatever.

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What have you been reading lately?

– Lauren

Read | December 2015

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Novels

  1. Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. When I heard Harper Lee was publishing another book, I knew I had to read it. However, as the controversy surrounding the circumstances of the book’s publication surfaced, I was unsure. After a few months of going back and forth, I ended up picking it up and read it on a recent car ride to Washington DC. It reads really quickly and is intelligently-written. I’m still trying to decide how I feel about it, mainly the new characterization of Atticus which I found disappointing. Though it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, it works as a continuation of the story. In keeping with the themes from To Kill A Mockingbird, the novel deals with racial tensions during Civil Rights. But instead of centering the novel on an actual racial  altercation, the tensions lie mainly in Scout’s and Atticus’ differing ideas on the proper ways to confront racism and Civil Rights.
  2. Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. The only Kurt Vonnegut I had read before Slaughterhouse Five were short stories from my middle school literature book. I picked up a copy of this book from a used book store, and I couldn’t put it down. It is assumed that the narrator of the story is Vonnegut himself, and the novel is his attempt to tell of his experiences of the Dresden fire-bombing. However, the story is science fiction, following Billy Pilgrim as he is abducted by aliens and learns to travel back and forth in time. Vonnegut inserts himself into the narrative at several points, making himself a character. It plays with concept of time, as well. Billy is able to travel back and forth in time, or rather, exist in many different moments at the same time. As a result, the narrative jumps forwards and backwards. It is nonlinear. Similarly, at the end of his “introduction” to Billy’s story, Vonnegut tells the readers what the first and last words of the narrative will be. In this way, he establishes time as cyclical rather than linear. In doing so, he comments on the futility of attempting to impose order, rationality, or intelligence on something like the Dresden bombings, a “massacre.”

Graphic Novels

  1. Maus Vol. 2 by Art Spiegelman. I read Maus Vol. 1 for one of my classes last semester and loved it. In it, Spiegelman tells the story of his father’s experience as a Polish Jew during World War II. Vol. 1 ends right as his father is captured, leaving the reader hanging. I had to find out what happened to him, so I ordered Vol. 2, which follows Spiegelman’s father’s life in Auschwitz and his eventual liberation. Spiegelman does a great job humanizing his father and representing an event that is unable to be truly represented. I highly recommend it.

Magazines

  1. Kinfolk Vol. 16. I buy Kinfolk on principle. Vol. 16 is the Essentials Issue. It argues against the minimalism fad by presenting the idea of essentialism. Basically, it embraces simplifying one’s life but leaving room for superfluous things that bring joy. As usual, the design of this issue is flawless. What really struck me about this issue, though, were the photographs. There are some really incredible black and white photographs in this issue that I kept flipping back to.

 

What did you read this month?

-Lauren

Read | April 2015

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Because of final papers and the end of the semester, April was a really slow reading month for me.  I read three novels and a handful of poems, but for the most part, I spent the past month huddled up in bed writing.  Of the three books I read, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner really blew me away.  I was lucky to have a brilliant teacher guide me through this book (which is so easy to get lost in), and as a result, I’ve settled on an interpretation of As I Lay Dying that is quite different from most people’s interpretation of it, and I just have to talk about it.  This post is going to be a little different from others on my blog, so buckle your seat belts and hold on tight.  The literature student in me is about to come out.

If you had asked me a month ago my opinion on William Faulkner, I would have promptly told you that I hate that guy.  But that was before As I Lay Dying.  This book converted me into a Faulkner lover.  Warning: there will be spoilers, so if you’re planning on reading this book at some point, don’t read any more of this post.

If you Google what the underlying themes of As I Lay Dying are, the internet will tell you that the book deals with issues of social class, and that, in my opinion, is an insultingly oversimplified interpretation of this novel.  If you had to place Faulkner into a school of literary criticism, he would fall in with the structuralists. He is obsessed with the relationships between words and actions, what is written and what is heard.  That is why there are so many typographical inconsistencies (not errors!) throughout the text.  He randomly switches to italics or “forgets” to include beginning quotation marks or doesn’t capitalize names, but if you don’t read the book, if you simply hear it, you won’t notice these things.  Through these inconsistencies, Faulkner is telling us that the monologues that comprise the story weren’t spoken monologues.  They were inscribed.  They rely on being seen, because that’s the only way these shifts in form can even be noticed.

But the question is why is it important that we know that the monologues were written, not spoken?  I’m going to do my best to answer it, but first I’m going to point out some weird, but important, things that happen throughout the novel.

  1. Darl is able to see things happen even when he isn’t there to see them.  He also describes himself as “are” not “is,” which suggests that sees himself as existing in a divided state.
  2. Each character has a specific idiom, or way of speaking, but sometimes that idiom is disrupted.  For example, Vardaman’s inner monologue and outer monologue don’t match.  At some points, he thinks much more eloquently than someone of his age and educational background should be able to, but he speaks in dialect. Dewey Dell, a backwoods country girl who can hardly form a grammatical sentence, is somehow able to quote Shakespeare.  Darl knows what cubism is.
  3. Cash and Vardaman refer to events that happen in the future but that they could not possibly know about at the time (Mrs. Bundren, the bananas, the toy train).
  4. Addie Bundren, who is dead, has a monologue.  Dead people can’t talk.
  5. Dewey Dell is pregnant, and Darl knows.  Jewel is mad throughout the whole novel and has only one monologue.  Vardaman is young but knows a secret.  Cash is stupid.  And Anse just wants a set of false teeth.

The premise of the story is that the Bundren family is traveling to Jefferson to bury Addie Bundren, their mother, who dies at the beginning of the novel.  Along the way, they encounter some challenges and aren’t able to bury her until nine days after she has died.  One night, the family stops at Gillespie’s to break up their trip, and in the middle of the night, the barn burns down.  Darl is accused of starting the fire, and after Addie is buried, he is carted off to an insane asylum without any evidence or trial to implicate him.

Here’s the thing.  I am not convinced that Darl set the fire. Most people would disagree with me, but I don’t think the text supports that Darl set the fire.  He had no motive, unlike Jewel, who had to give up his horse and disrupt his life for the trip to Jefferson.  Jewel also demonstrates at several points in the novel that he is prone to violence.

As I mentioned earlier, Faulkner is a structuralist.  He pays attention to words.  In the scene describing the fire, there is a recurrence of the word “glare.” The first time it’s used, it describes the fire.  The second time, it is described as reflecting off of Jewel’s eyes.  The third time, Jewel “glares” at Darl.  There is a linguistic evolution in the function of this word that suggests that Jewel and the fire are tied to one another.  This leads me to suspect Jewel.  And it is not insignificant that Darl’s monologues pay particular attention to Jewel, but Jewel himself has only one monologue.

If Jewel set the fire, why does everyone blame Darl?  Simple.  Darl’s family has a vested interest in getting rid of him.  If Jewel started the fire, he needs a scapegoat.  Dewey Dell is the one who blames him.  Darl’s getting locked away benefits her, because it removes from the picture the only person who knows about her pregnancy.  Without Darl, she can get an abortion and no one will ever know she was pregnant in the first place.  Vardaman is too young to understand the situation, although he says over and over again that he witnessed something that Dewey Dell made him promise to keep secret.  If this secret is that Jewel set the fire, not Darl, it is not in Dewey Dell’s interest that the truth should get out.  Cash is too stupid to know any different, and Anse is just in it for the teeth.

Now let’s go back to the question of why does it matter that the monologues are written rather than spoken, and consider who is inscribing the monologues. Who is the only person who has the motive and ability to write all of this down?  It can only be Darl, who now spends his days in an asylum, where he has the time to learn about grammar and cubism and Shakespeare while he waits to die.  As I Lay Dying serves as his vindication of himself and his implication of his family.  This is how Darl is able to see things when he isn’t physically there to see them.  He exists in a divided state: the Darl who experienced the events in the novel and the Darl who writes about them.  It is also how Dewey Dell is able to quote Shakespeare when she can’t entertain any other grammatically correct thought, and Vardaman can think, but not speak, eloquently.  It is also how the other characters can think and act outside of the chronology and how dead-as-a-doornail Addie Bundren can have a monologue.

If the book is comprised of spoken monologues, everything I just wrote is irrelevant.  Throughout this novel, Faulkner harps on the importance of doing over speaking.  He is meticulous in making sure we understanding the importance of physically looking at this text with our eyes, because that means it was written.   This is getting a little meta, but bear with me.  We can see this importance in Addie’s philosophies about words and language – doing something versus speaking something – and Cash’s obsession with the graphophone.  The root words of graphophone literally mean “written” then “heard.”  The book itself is a graphophone, elevating the role of doing over the role of speaking, because language is arbitrary.  Faulkner was a structuralist.  He believed this.  The lines of text in this novel are like grooves in a record, but we see them rather than hear them.  To fully understand this text, we have to understand that the narration is written, not spoken.

In conclusion, this book is incredible.  Faulkner is incredible.  And as nerdy as it sounds, I’m gong to immediately start rereading As I Lay Dying because I feel like I have so much more to glean from it.

Wow, this has turned out to be a much longer post than I intended.  Props to everyone who made it this far.  I don’t know too many people who get on blogs to read literary analyses, but I hope you found this interesting or helpful.

Let me know your thoughts on the novel or what your favorite book of the month was.

-Lauren

Read | February 2015

Typically, at the end of every month, I make a blog post listing everything I read over the course of that month from short stories and essays to novels to poems.  This month, however, was crazy.  For my classes, I read more than 70 pieces, about 60 of which were poems, and I am under no illusions that anyone wants to read that long list.  Rather, here are my favorite pieces I read in February.

Short Stories

  1. Battle Royal by Ralph Ellison.  Technically this is a chapter from Ellison’s book The Invisible Man, but holy cow.  Talk about emotions.  I haven’t read The Invisible Man in its entirety, but from this chapter I read, the book is about a young African American man who is haunted by some advice he receives from his former slave grandfather to maintain the appearance of submission to his white oppressors but to never submit to the oppression within his heart and mind.  The narrator buys into the social philosophy of Booker T. Washington, but “Battle Royal” places him into disturbing situations that challenge his ideas of the appropriate response to racism.  I read this chapter for a literary theory and criticism class I’m taking, and after reading it, I definitely want to get my hands on the rest of the book.

Novels/Poetry Books

  1. On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac.  Kerouac wrote this book in three weeks after spending about seven years driving around the United States.  Instead of typing the book on individual pages, he typed it without any punctuation on one long piece of paper, which resembled a scroll.  Because the book is biographical, the names were changed in the edited versions.  However, the original scroll was recently found, and the book was republished using the real names.  I’m taking a class on bohemianism, and I am fascinated by the Beat generation.  I could never live the type of hand-to-mouth lifestyle that they did, but reading about it and the literature they produced is so interesting.  The only thing I didn’t like about On the Road was its representation of women, but because it is largely based on Kerouac’s actual experience, I tried not to analyze it outside of its social and historical context.
  2. No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July.  This was one of two books I was able to read for fun this past month.  I was first acquainted with Miranda July in my introduction to creative writing class last semester, so when I saw her book at Barnes & Noble, I decided to give it a go.  The book is a collection of short stories, and most, if not all, of the stories deal primarily with female characters, explorations of loneliness, and the lengths to which people will go to feel loved.  The content and subject matter sometimes verge on absurdity, but July’s ability to take the unusual, very singular habits of her characters and reconcile the character’s experience to the reader’s is something I really enjoyed about this collection.  I can’t wait to read July’s recently released novel The First Bad Man.
  3. The Feather Room by Anis Mojgani. As I’ve mentioned before, Anis Mojgani is my all-time favorite poet and someone who I draw a lot of inspiration from as a writer. If I am correct, he is primarily a spoken word poet, but he has three published volumes of his poetry, of which I’ve read two.  The Feather Room was an interesting read for me because Mojgani weaves elements of magical realism and the fantastical throughout the collection in order to traverse themes of loss, heartbreak, and love.

Poems

  1. You Are Jeff by Richard Siken.  I’ve really been enjoying prose poetry lately, and this prose poem by Richard Siken is one of my favorites.  It is extremely difficult to parse out, partially because it’s fairly long, but also because the nature of it lends itself to many different interpretations.  Personally, I believe this poem is a commentary on possibility.  Also, the language and narrative are absolutely beautiful.
  2. In Memoriam by Alfred Tennyson.  Tennyson wrote this poem over a period of seventeen years following the unexpected death of his best friend Arthur Henry Hallam.  The poem, which is incredibly long, is Tennyson’s exploration and acknowledgement of his own grief and a sort of coping mechanism.  Each lyric, of which there are 131, was written as a separate poem and compiled into one long poem years later when Tennyson decided to publish it.  In Memoriam is certainly not light reading, but it is definitely worth a read as it does such a powerful and effective job at transcribing a strong emotion at the core of human experience and embraces several Victorian themes.
  3. Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare.  Sonnet 130 is my favorite of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  Generally, I’m not crazy about love poems, so this one is just my speed.  Shakespeare’s sonnets can be divided into two sections based on the person to whom they are addressed: a unknown male and the Dark Lady.  This particular sonnet pertains to the Dark Lady, and I like it because in it, Shakespeare satirizes the traditional love poem.  He says that his mistress isn’t the most beautiful.  Her hair is like wires, and sometimes her breath smells bad.  Regardless, he possesses the rarest kind of love because he sees her as she is and loves her anyway, rather than trying to force her into an idealized image with far-fetched comparisons.

Let me know what you read this month!

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