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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

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Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion. I read two of Joan Didion’s memoirs earlier this summer and couldn’t put them down, so when I saw Play It As It Lays, one of her fictions, on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, I had to pick it up. The novel is set in 1960s Hollywood and explores the position of women in society and mental illness, among other themes. It’s very poignantly written, and the reading experience was disturbing and affective despite the fact that the plot isn’t overly momentous or action-driven. Didion is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I highly, highly recommend this novel.

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch. Though I’ve only read two of his books, Herman Koch is another one of my favorite writers. I read The Dinner last summer and adored it, so I picked up Summer House with Swimming Pool to read on a recent trip to the beach. The novel follows a doctor and his family as they spend their summer vacation at the beach house of one of his clients, a famous but sleazy actor who we know from the outset will die by the narrator’s hands before the novel’s conclusion. Koch is really great at using nonlinear narratives, unreliable narrators, and unlikeable and controversial characters to create his engrossing psychological thrillers. Koch says in interviews that one of his goals in writing his novels is to be controversial, push boundaries, and make readers question societal values and judgments, and this novel definitely does all of those things. Koch plays with the idea of moral absolutism, the boundaries of sexual behaviors, misogyny, and the absurdity of fame and privilege.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. My Brilliant Friend is, hands down, my favorite read of the summer so far. Lately, I’ve been trying to read a more diverse selection of writers, including those whose works have been translated into English. My Brilliant Friend falls into this category (along with Summer House with Swimming Pool), as it was originally published in Italian. I’ve heard so many intriguing things about Elena Ferrante and her writing and was not let down my My Brilliant Friend. My Brilliant Friend is part of a series by Ferrante and tells the story of friendship between two girls, the unspoken competition within their friendship, and their struggles to feel worthwhile and follow dreams that are different than what is expected of them given the social politics of their poor Italian neighborhood. Definitely read this novel.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare. In a moment of nostalgia for last summer when I studied abroad in England, I decided to read some Shakespeare so I could annotate a play or two while I drank tea and pretended I was in Oxford and not spending the summer working at home in Alabama. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is hilarious and tackles some real-life concerns under the guise of lightheartedness. It has magic, fairies, star-crossed lovers, a man with the head of a donkey, love triangles, and it reads with the ease and flow that is typical of Shakespeare’s other plays. References to this play are so pervasive in popular culture, which, combined with the merits of the play itself, makes A Midsummer Night’s Dream a must-read.

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin. I started reading this book back in high school and abandoned it about halfway through. An Object of Beauty is a novel based in the New York City art world and follows a recent college graduate for a period of several years as she manipulates, schemes, and uses her sexuality to get ahead in the art world. After taking several classes in art history and becoming more familiar with renowned artists, their work, and the nature of the art market, I decided to give An Object of Beauty another try. I did not love this novel. I found the characters to be flat, uninteresting, and cliche, and I thought the ending wrapped up a little too neatly for all the characters involved, but Martin, who is an art lover himself, offers some interesting opinions on the nature and value of art. My advice for you if you decide to read this book is to read it for Martin’s insights about the art market and not for the plot, which I found rather lackluster and contrived. I wouldn’t go so far as to not recommend this book, but I think it’s very much geared toward people who have a better-than-average knowledge of art and artists.

What have you read this summer?

– Lauren

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The Pocketknife Bible by Anis Mojgani. The Pocketknife Bible is Mojgani’s self-illustrated memoir in verse that talks about his experiences growing up down South. It has the really mystical and swampy feeling of his poetry collections, and I highly recommend it.

Crush by Richard Siken. I knew of Richard Siken solely because of his poem “You Are Jeff,” which is one of my favorites. I had this collection in my “Want to Read” shelf on Goodreads and finally picked it up when I stumbled across it at Barnes & Noble. I loved it so much that I read every poem twice. If you’re someone who wants to read poetry but is intimidated by the “classics,” check out Richard Siken. Personally, I find his work to be very beautiful, but also very accessible. And even when I have no idea what he’s talking about, I’m strangely okay with it.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. I don’t think I have adequate words to describe my love for Joan Didion. I will seriously read anything that she writes. The Year of Magical Thinking is her memoir of the year following the unexpected death of her husband, and it absolutely destroyed me.

Bark by Lorrie Moore. Like Joan Didion, Lorrie Moore can do no wrong in my eyes. She writes incredible short stories, and this collection did not disappoint. Moore has this knack for writing these stories that are simultaneously the most hilarious and most devastating things I’ve ever read. And she does it all within the span of about 30 pages. From this collection, my favorite is “Paper Losses.”

Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma. If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll know I absolutely rave over Kristopher Jansma’s novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. When I found out he was writing another book, I preordered it on principle. The story follows a friend group of twenty-somethings after one of them is diagnosed with cancer. I’m very hesitant when it comes to books about people with cancer, because 1.) they make me sad and 2.) they’re often full of annoying tropes. But I read it anyway. It did make me sad, but I didn’t find it frustratingly contrived. I really enjoyed how it was structured and the multiple perspective narration.

What have you read recently?

– 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 | August and September 2015

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As usual, I’ve been reading quite a bit these days. I love all of my classes this semester, and the reading lists for most of them are phenomenal and include some books outside the sphere of what I would typically choose. The books and short stories I’ve listed below are my favorite reads of the past two months, and I highly recommend all of them, particularly Pale Fire and Maus. Enjoy!

Novels

  1. A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle. Because of my slight Sherlock obsession, A Study in Scarlet was a reread for me. I’m taking a class on detective fiction, and to begin the course, we read two authors who paved the genre: Poe and Conan Doyle. This novella serves as the introduction to the Holmes adventures, but it differs from all the stories that follow it. It is split up into two sections that don’t seem at all cohesive until the very end. One minute you’re reading about Holmes and the next minute you’re reading about Mormons. It almost seems like two completely separate short stories until you start recognizing the names from the first section. It seems weird, but it works in my opinion.
  2. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov. Holy. Moly. Everyone, stop what you’re doing, and read this book. Pale Fire is, by far, my favorite thing I read all month. I read Lolita last year, so I knew that Nabokov is brilliant, but Pale Fire blew me away. The time and thought he put into this novel is glaring. I can’t even understand how he managed to pull it off. The novel pretends to be a scholarly edition of a poem written by the narrator’s next-door neighbor. It opens with a forward by Charles Kinbote, the unreliable narrator, and is followed by the poem by John Shade and the commentary by Kinbote. Throughout the novel, Nabokov weaves together several different narratives threads: Kinbote’s, John Shade’s, a king’s, a killer’s. By intertwining these narrative strands, Nabokov challenges the conventions of narrative and leaves the reader uncertain of the reality of the narrative (but in a good way). It’s one of those books you have to read over and over again, because you uncover something new each time. For instance, the nature of the narrative suggests that Kinbote, the editor of the poem, is also the author-narrator of the commentary. But when I finished reading, I wasn’t convinced that he was either. I think it’s safe to say that Pale Fire’s made it on my list of all-time favorites, and I highly, highly recommend it.
  3. Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. In my detective fiction class, I’ve been reading a lot of hard-boiled, noir novels. Red Harvest is your typical 1920s gangster novel. It follows the Continental Op who comes to Poisonville to clean up the corruption. This type of detective fiction differs from the classical detective fiction by Conan Doyle or Poe. Instead of the classical detective such as Holmes or Dupin, the idiosyncratic genius who is largely removed from the crime and solves it by noticing and piecing together what the police overlook, the hardboiled detective like the Op is involved in the action. He is not absurdly smart or unflinchingly moral. Rather, he is portrayed as an ordinary person whose morality and motivations are often called into question. Overall, it is an entertaining and socially aware novel that addresses the anxieties of the late 1920s/early 1930s.

Graphic Novels

  1. Maus by Art Spiegelman. Up until about a month ago, I had never read a graphic novel, but by a happy accident I unknowingly signed up for a graphic novel class for my creative writing minor. Previously, I had always associated graphic novels with superheroes or manga, neither of which are my cup of tea, but this class has proven me wrong. I recently read Maus, which is incredibly famous and renowned (it won a Pulitzer). Art Spiegelman is essentially telling the story of his father’s life in Nazi Poland, his experience in a prisoner of war camp,  hiding from the police, and eventually being sent to Auschwitz. Spiegelman makes himself a character in the story. We see him having conversations with his father and writing down the stories he hears with the intention of putting them into a novel. What is really interesting about the book is that though all of the characters are drawn as animals, Spiegelman manages to humanize the Holocaust. The Jews are mice; the Poles are pigs; the Nazis are cats; the Americans are dogs. Regardless, we are acutely aware that Vladeck was a real person. The animals remove the reader a degree from fully sympathizing with him, which allows us to individualize the Holocaust rather than seeing it as a blanket experience.

Short Stories

  1. How to Tell a True War Story by Tim O’Brien. How to Tell a True War Story is a chapter from Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried. This chapter comments on the line between fiction and nonfiction in prose, specifically prose about war. The short story is framed as a first-person narrative, but despite the fact that O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran, it is unclear whether or not he is the narrator. Throughout the piece, the narrator instructs the reader on how to tell a true war story or how to tell if a war story is true. In doing so he tells stories from his experiences in a war, witnessing death and being in such psychologically straining experiences. It is unclear whether or not these stories actually happened, but it doesn’t matter. Over and over again the narrator says, “This is true,” however, at the end of the short story, O’Brien-as-the-author says, “None of it happened. None of it.” He blurs the lines between truth and fiction, separates us into readers and hearers of stories, and makes an argument on how truth plays into it all.

What did you read this month?

-Lauren

Read | Summer 2015

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Today marks the first day of fall classes at my university, which inevitably means I will soon be overwhelmed by the extensive reading list that accompanies upper level English courses. I literally have thirty-five required books for the semester. Thirty-five. But don’t get me wrong, I’m exceptionally excited for my classes this semester. I’m taking British Literature from 1900-1945, Narrative Theory, American Detective Fiction, Chapbook Publishing, and The Illustrated Narrative. With lots of required reading in my future, I thought I would take this time to talk about some of my favorite reads from the summer.

Novels

  1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This book is probably one of my favorite things I read this summer. It takes place in the aftermath of an epidemic that wipes out most of the world’s population and forces society to revert to a more primitive style of living. The story follows a traveling Shakespearean acting troupe that has an unfortunate run-in with a misguided religious fanatic. What originally drew me to this book was the Shakespearean acting troupe, but what kept me drawn into the novel was the style of narrative. The narration is nonlinear and told from multiple perspectives, which forces the reader into a role of constructing the  plot.
  2. The Dinner by Herman Koch. The Dinner is another novel whose narration really captured me. This book was on a list of recommended reads for my narrative theory class. Again, the plot is nonlinear and told largely through flashbacks. The present in the novel takes place at a restaurant, and what I found really interesting about the text is that its progression corresponds with the courses of the meal. In other words, instead of being divided into parts or books, the text is divided up by course. The plot follows two families and a conversation they are having over dinner about their children. Like Station Eleven, the nontraditional narrative style of The Dinner forces the reader to piece everything together and discover the tragedy that has occurred. The novel also has somewhat of a psychological aspect as well in its morally ambiguous characters and ominous undertones Koch evokes before the reader is even aware of the novel’s conflict.

Short Stories

  1. The First Forty-Nine Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway. About a year ago, one of my friends came across a collection of some of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories while she was browsing a used book store, and knowing how much I love Hemingway, picked it up for me. This summer, I finally got around to reading it. I really enjoy Hemingway’s writing style and how he can say so much in so few words. Also, though there are 49 short stories in this particular collection, they aren’t entirely separate entities. There are certain characters, places, and events that carry over into other stories. I tend to prefer short stories that feel like snapshots of fleeting moments that could have been taken from a larger work, which I believe Hemingway does extremely well, particularly in this collection.

Drama

  1. The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. I read this play for a class I took this summer called The Uncomfortable Shakespeare, which explored the aspects of Shakespeare’s plays which were perfectly acceptable in Early Modern society but that a modern audience finds to be troublesome. The Merchant of Venice contains primarily issues of race and religion. When analyzing the plays through the lens of the uncomfortable, one must question whether Shakespeare was drastically ahead of the thinking of his time or simply playing devil’s advocate. He humanizes the “othered” characters to a degree that was virtually nonexistent among his contemporaries. Check out the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, and you’ll see what I mean. Although the play is called The Merchant of Venice, I tend to sympathize most with Shylock, the outsider, the “undesirable.” Throughout the play, Shakespeare explores the concepts of justice and mercy and who is allowed to experience those things. The icing on the cake for me was being able to see this play performed in Stratford by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It was performed in modern dress with a completely bare stage, except for a giant pendulum in the background. I could go on and on about the production, but I will suffice it to say that it was one of my favorite stage performances I’ve ever seen.
  2. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen. Ibsen is known as the father of modern drama and a major founder of realism and Modernism in drama. In one of my classes last semester, we briefly discussed Ibsen and his impact on works written for the stage. Furthermore, one of my favorite novels makes several allusions to Ibsen, so I decided I should check him out. A Doll’s House is his most famous work, so that’s the one I went with. It explores gender roles and freedom in marriage. At the time, the ending was critiqued as scandalous and antithetical to what society believed at the time to be a woman’s disposition. Overall, it is an interesting commentary on femininity and masculinity, their relationship to one another, and the roles that accompany each one.

What did you read this summer?

-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 | March 2015

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Essays

  1. The Fleshly School of Poetry by Robert Buchanan.  Maybe it’s a little weird that I’m recommending a critical essay, but this one by Robert Buchanan is hilarious (as far as critical essays go, that is).  In it, he is critiquing the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, a Victorian poet and artist, member of the PreRaphaelite Brotherhood, and Buchanan’s contemporary.  I found myself laughing the whole way through this essay, because Buchanan is so sassy and mean.  He literally uses the word “nasty” in a critical essay in order to describe D.G. Rossetti’s poetry.  He even says that the world would be a better place if D.G. had never written anything at all.  Such sass.  To the modern reader, D.G. Rossetti’s poetry would not seem racy or provocative, but to the Victorian Buchanan, it was enough to send him into a fit.  Needless to say, Robert Buchanan wasn’t amazing at his job, but this essay made for a pretty entertaining class discussion.

Books

  1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.  Jane Eyre is a book that I definitely should have read a long time ago.  It is, by far, the most accessible classic I’ve read.  That being said, there is so much going on under the surface.  Common Victorian themes such as empire, gender, and reality versus romanticism rear their heads throughout the novel.  Setting plays a huge role, and the book as a whole breaks several major conventions of the 19th Century novel.  For example, it has an unlikely narrator and contains unusual cross-class relationships.  Also, there’s a love story thrown in there, for the all the romantics.  I have to admit that I’m not Rochester’s biggest fan.  I do prefer movie Rochester to book Rochester, but I think Mr. Darcy has ruined me for literary love interests.
  2. Bluets by Maggie Nelson.  How to describe this book?  In Bluets Maggie Nelson documents her obsession with the color blue in a compilation of short lyric essays.  The essays focus on her experiences, feelings, and connotations surrounding the color, and in seeking to describe something that is indescribable (such as a color), she addresses taboo topics such as depression and sex.  It is such an interesting concept that I believe is accomplished extremely well.
  3. Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins.  I have to admit that the first time I read this book, I couldn’t make it to the end, and I had no intentions of ever attempting to read it again.  But as it was on the syllabus for one of my classes this semester, I was obligated to give it another go, and this time, I absolutely loved it.  The book is told from dual perspectives but focuses mostly around a king who decides to rebel against death and live forever.  Magical realism, mythology, and perfume play large roles in the story as well, but I won’t give too much away.  The message of the book is quintessentially bohemian in that it paints bohemianism as something that is not confined by a specific set of behaviors or circumstances, and it calls to mind the relationships between the natural and the synthetic, the animal and the civilized, the essence of a person and how he or she identifies, desire and convention.  Tom Robbins’ stories and writing style are incredibly unique and a little bit weird, but I definitely plan on picking up his other books.
  4. Just Kids by Patti Smith. This book is in the running for my favorite book I read this month (along with Jane Eyre).  Just Kids is Patti’s Smiths memoir on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe and her life as an artist.  Unlike so many other “bohemian” texts I’ve read, Smith portrays her art and the art of her friends as something that requires discipline, and I really enjoyed that about the book.  She doesn’t romanticize the idea of the starving artist, although she quite literally was one.  Rather, she outlines the evolution and journey of her art and her community throughout the sixties and seventies.  The book is beautifully written and tragic, as it serves as a sort of elegy for Mapplethorpe.  Even if you are not a fan of Patti Smith, I highly recommend you read it.

Poetry

  1. Mowing by Robert Frost.  I had a teacher once who said that Robert Frost is the most misinterpreted American poet to ever live, and I would probably have to agree.  “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” are severely misunderstood on shocking levels.  “Mowing” is no exception, and I’ll admit that when I first read it, I thought it was a poem about farming.  I was partially correct.  On the surface, the poem is about someone who is cutting hay and laying it in rows.  However, when someone in my literature class suggested that the poem is actually about writing, a lightbulb went off.  Of course it is!  Through his word choice and images, Frost creates a metaphor paralleling cutting hay and writing poems.  It’s brilliant, and it completely blew my mind.
  2. This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams.  Although William Carlos Williams is known best for “The Red Wheelbarrow,” “This Is Just to Say” is an incredibly famous poem, because it indirectly makes a commentary on which subjects are worthy of poetry.  The poem is short and reads like a note that would be left on someone’s refrigerator.  There are several different interpretations of this tiny poem, but I like it because it focuses on the mundane, but doesn’t idealize it.

What did you read this month?

My Creative Process

Hello

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My name is Lauren, and I’m a writer. Here’s my creative process.

StepOne

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Read

The primary way that I get ideas for the pieces I write is by reading the work of my favorite writers. I like to see the narrative decisions other writers make, as well as their uses of form and diction.  Reading is a great way for me to find different techniques to appropriate (not copy) in my own writing.  For instance, if I read a prose poem by Richard Siken about a bunch of people named Jeff that explores the theme of possibility, I might get an idea to write a prose poem about a fictional town where no one can speak that comments on the places where we derive significance.  Some of my favorite writers are Kristopher Jansma, Donna Tartt, Anis Mojgani, and Sarah Kay.

StepTwoIMG_4811
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Get Inspired

When inspiration doesn’t come naturally, I go look for it, and that can take a variety of forms.  Sometimes looking for inspiration means going on a hike in nature (how Romantic-with-a-capital-“r” of me), and sometimes it means exploring the streets of a new city.  I believe there is so much to be found in the spaces around me whether it be in the plants overtaking a dilapidated wall downtown, street art on the side of a building, or an overheard conversation between two people in a coffee shop.  Anything can be inspiration.

StepThree
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Caffeinate

This is essential.

StepFour
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Write Write Write

Now that I have an idea, inspiration, and caffeine in my bloodstream, I can get to work.  I like to write by hand to begin with, because it makes everything I write just a little more intentional than typing does.  If I can tell that the piece is going to be a long one, then I’ll switch over to my computer.

StepFive

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Don’t Look At It

After I’ve written as much of a piece as I can over a few sittings, I read through it, and then put it away for several weeks.  During these weeks, I don’t look at it at all.  I do this because I find it very difficult to revise something when I’m immersed in it.  When a couple weeks have passed, I open my notebook to a blank sheet and try to rewrite the piece from memory.  Because I haven’t seen the piece in a while, I tend to remember only the most important images and ideas.  As a result, I know that these elements are essential to the interpretation of the piece, and I can discard the rest.  Once I’ve done that, I write some more and repeat the process over again.

StepSix
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Feedback and Revision

Once I feel like I’ve written everything that I possibly can, I take the piece to someone whose opinion I trust and let him or her read it and give feedback.  When I need feedback, I take my work to my friend Caroline (pictured), because she isn’t afraid to hurt my feelings and tell me if something is stupid or doesn’t make any sense.  That being said, she also tells me what about the piece works extremely well, and she entertains all of my ridiculous questions about my writing such as “Does this poem make you feel flowy?” or “When you read this, what color do you think of?”  It’s also nice to have her tell me what she thinks the main points or themes of the piece are, so I can see if I’m effectively communicating what I’m trying to say.  Since criticisms of writing are often highly subjective, I consider the feedback I receive and try to decide if I agree with it.  If so, I make some changes and adjustments to the piece until I feel as though it’s finished (it never is).

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Comment and tell me about your creative process!

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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