Books and Book Reviews: January 2008 Archives

I am neither a fan of Oprah Winfrey nor a detractor. So much of what she does has no direct relevance for my life. However, I have to admire a woman who not only encourages her audience to read difficult Faulkner books (Light in August, As I Lay Dying, and The Sound and the Fury), but also to understand and appreciate them.

Here is the website she set up to support the Faulkner reading experience. It includes short excerpts from "Faulkner Scholars" (I can't speak to their credentials) and essays and short pieces on Faulkner.

I always have to admire what is good but what need not be done in the name of commercial success. In this little thing, at least, Oprah gives back to her community and ultimately to all of us--because we all profit when people are moved to stretch beyond their own little realms.

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I finished As I Lay Dying last Wednesday and I've been thinking about it on and off since then. A few simple facts: it is by far and away one of the easiest of Faulkner's books to read; it was written, deliberately, as a tour-de-force, and features the voices/thoughts of some 15 or so characters; while you might wonder why all the voices, it isn't just a gimmick, it really is integral to one of Faulkner's points.

While I enjoyed this book and would recommend it as the second book one steps to in the scaffolded entry into Faulkner's world, I have to admit that most of my thought has been around one place where I felt the book slip out of Faulkner's control--Darl's fate.

Without saying overly much about this important part of the denouement, let's say that Faulkner's propensity for histrionics which would serve him well as a screen writer, shows clearly in Darl's final monologue. There really is no trigger for it, nor any real sense of its inevitability. It neatly rounds out the package of the distant and alienated, somehow supernatural intellect I wrote about last week, but it fails to satisfy because it does tend to be over the top. I hesitate to write this because much of my thought has been puzzling through this portion of the novel and trying to see what Faulkner may have been attempting and what I may have missed. As I've said before, I am not necessarily a very deep or profound reader and so things that are right there on the surface can sometimes elude me. Which is to say, don't take what is said here as a profound critique of the book--it is merely a surface impression.

One of the themes of As I Lay Dying is the mass of contradictions that each person is as a person. Add to that the meaning of grief and the meaning, purpose, and playing out of family life, and you have a robust and sometimes rollicking novel. Despite what may seem to be very down-beat subject matter, there are moments of high comedy--in fact, more than moments. Much of the book is hilarious, if sometimes darkly.

The book begins as Addie Bundren lay dying in her room. Outside the room her oldest son Cash, who might not be the brightest bulb in the Marquis, is plank by plank assembling her coffin, showing her each finished board as it is complete. Addie has extracted from her husband Anse a promise that she will be buried with "her people" in the town of Jefferson, some 8 to 10 miles away and across the river that marks the southern border of Yoknapatawpha County.

Addie dies early on and the remainder of the book is getting her to Jefferson to be buried. The trials start with Darl and Jewel returning late from carting a load of lumber, and continue with a three day delay in the services which results in the Bundrens not beig able to set out until after the river has reached flood stage and washed out several easy passages across.

And so it continues--an almost epic quest to return Addie to the lap of her ancestors. Through it we learn much of the family dynamics and discover that Addie's death is quite convenient for almost all of her family. Cash wants to go to town to buy a gramaphone, Dewey Dell has urgent reasons of her own for wanting to go to town, Vardaman wants to see the red electric train on display in one of the town stores, and Anse wants to get a set of false teeth. All of these ulterior motives drive the Bundrens to Jefferson and through a host of escapades in between, including a stop in Mottston that nearly gets them all landed in jail because poor Addie isn't holding up well. And of course, the trio, quartet, or quintet of winged heralds that accompany them through much of the trip.

Through it we learn about Addie and Anse's relationship. In fact, that is one of the most intriguing juxtapositions of the book. Addie's only narration comes well after she is dead and in sharp contrast to Cora's reflection on some past events that shed light on the family--why Darl so viciously baits Jewel, for example.

I may post more excerpts later, but for now, let this review stand. The book is vintage Faulkner--it is far more easily comprehended than almost any other--a veritable model of clarity compared to either The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom! and a nice second step into Faulkner's world after The Unvanquished. I remember reading this in my senior year of high school and "getting" most of it; however, like all of Faulkner, I think it is better visited by an older, more seasoned, more patient, and generally more perceptive reader. The young reader is likely to be more derailed and fascinated by the literary pyrotechnics and tricks. I remember trying to write my own imitation of it after reading it all those many years ago. And in some ways, I am still writing my own imitation of it.

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A Little Knowledge


Having read the book before, I'm looking for signs of something different--something that brings Anse Bundren into the realm of the human and humane. And it's here and it's interesting and it is one of those things that makes one pause and go, "Hmmmmm."

from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

[Dewey Dell narrating]

Pa helps himself and pushes the dish on. But he does not begin to eaat. His hands are halfclosed on either side of his plate, his head bowed a little, his awry hair standing into the lamplight. He looks like right after the maul hits the steer and it no longer alive and dont yet know that it is dead.

But Cash is eating, and he is too. "You better eat something," He says. He is looking at pa. "Like Cash and me. You'll need it."

"Ay," pa says. He rouses up, like a steer that's been kneeling in a pond and you run at it. "She would not degrudege me it."

This from the man who in his own sections says:

from As I Lay Dying William Faulkner

[Anse Bundren narrating]

But it's a long wait, seems like. It's bad that a fellow must earn the reward of his right-doing by flouting hisself and his dead. We drove all the rest of the day and got to Samson's at dust-dark and then that bridge was gone, too. They hadn't never see the river so high, and it not done raining yet. There was old men that hadn't never see nor hear of it being so in the memory of a man. I am the chosen of the Lord, for who He loveth, so doeth He chastiseth. But I be durn if He dont take some curious ways to show it, seems like.

But now I can get them teeeth. That will be a comfort. It will.

Addie's death gives him the excuse to drive to Jefferson, a day's cart-trip away to bury her, but also to pick up some false teeth along the way. The Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform.

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Darl--The Strange One


Throughout the book Darl Bundren is typified as "the strange one." Cora Tull thinks he's a darling and the most precious of the group, the one who loves Addie best, but Darl is the agent provacateur whose actions propel much of the book.

Darl is also very odd in this collection of characters. Consider this observation from early on in the book:

from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

Jewel glances back, then goes around the house. I enter the hall, hearing the voices before I reach the door. Tilting a little down the hill, as our house does, a breeze draws through the hall all the time, upslanting. A feather dropped near the front door will rise and brush along the ceiling, slanting backward, until it reaches the down-turning current at the back door: so with voices. As you enter the hall, they sound as though they were speaking out of the air about your head.

It doesn't seem particularly remarkable until you've read a little way and realized that there is no other character in this book that speaks with such remarkable clarity, such breadth of vision. The sentences are clear, grammatical, not shot through with the normal difficulties of Faulkner's country folk--ranging from near incoherence to an obsessive-compulsive concentration on the single object of their attention. Darl, in contrast is placid, distant, clear. In fact, he may be among the clearest voices in any of the Faulkner that I have read--preternaturally clear.

This is brought home by the fact that Darl narrates the scene of Addie Bundren's death, even though he is, at the time, several miles away, helping his brother Jewel fix a wheel that has been broken while trying to transport some lumber in order to make some additional money. Moreover, Darl is also privy to the thoughts of several characters. Here he shares Dewey Dell's thoughts:

from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

She will go out where Peabody is, where she can stand in the twilight and look at his back with such an expression that, feeling her eyes and turning, he will say: I would not let it grieve me, now. She was old, and sick too. Suffering more than we knew. She couldn't have got well.
Vardaman's getting big now, and with you to take good care of them all. I would try not to let it grieve me. I expect you'd better go and get some supper ready. It dont have to be much. But they'll need to eat, and she looking at him, saying You could do so much for me if you just would. If you just knew. I am I and you are you and I know it and you don't know it and you could do so much for me if you just would and if you just would then I could tell you and then nobody would have to know it except you and me and Darl

And then he continues with a television-like viewing of the events around Addie's deathbed.

Darl knows things that have not been shared with him. For example, he knows about Jewel's parentage, about Dewey Dell's condition.

Distant, cool, and knowing, Darl seems to manipulate many of the circumstances of the novel. He is uncannily intelligent. The words he uses:

from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

Before us the thick dark current runs. It talks up to us in a murmur become ceaseless and myriad, the yellow surface dimpled monstrously into fading swirls travelling along the surface for an instant, silent impermanent and profoundly significant, as though just beneath the surface something huge and alive waked for a moment of lazy alertness out of and into light slumber again.

It clucks and murmurs among the spokes and about the mules' knees, yellow, skummed with flotsam and with thick soiled gouts of foam as though it had sweat, lathering, like a driven horse. Through the undergrowth it goes with a plaintive sound, a musing sound; in it the unwinded cane and saplings lean as before a little gale, swaying without reflections as though suspended on invisible wires from the branches overhead. Above the ceaseless surface they stand--trees, cane, vines--rootless, severed from the earth, spectral above a scene of immense yet circumscribed desolation filled with the voice of the waste and mournful water.

Who is this boy? Considering his upbringing and the schooling reflected in his siblings, how does he come to know the words "myriad," "Impermanent," "significant," among others?

Darl is one of the keys to the novel and one of the keys to what Faulkner has to say about family, community, grieving, and living again after grief. I don't know what that key will unlock--that remains to be seen. But he certainly poses a puzzle from very early on. This alien intelligence looks in to the events encompassing the Bundren family, manipulates them, and draws them into meaning and significance. What meaning and what significance remain to be seen.

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Faulkner, Hemingway, et al.


I always feel a little defensive and a little self-conscious when I'm reading books such as the ones I've posted about here recently. It may seem like I'm trying to show off. It may seem a little snooty or high-falutin'. I recognize that it may seem a little elitist.

That's why I thought it might be good to explore my motives in reading these books. My motives are really very, very simple. I'm enjoying it. . . a lot. The only good reason for reading any book that doesn't directly contribute to either spiritual advancement or betterment in some aspect of life-functioning is that you enjoy the reading.

I enjoy the challenge of reading Faulkner and I enjoy the ample rewards such reading bestows on the reader. There is something about encountering writers one was once forced to read for "edification" on one's own terms. Now I can read Faulkner without a bunch of people trying to judge how well I am reading Faulkner. I've already admitted that I am neither the best nor most profound interpreter of texts. I am not a super-skilled reader--I can only offer the meager embellishments I do here. But to paraphrase something I read last night on Sam's dance teacher's t-shirt, "When I read, I do not try to read better than anyone else, I only try to read better than myself." So the challenges--there are many types--sheer linguistic thickness (Faulkner), a stark and bald simplicity that may or may not contain hidden depths (Faulkner). characters whose vacuity and the emptiness of whose lives absolutely beggars the imagination (Fitzgerald), and so forth.

So, I will continue to read these along with other works interspersed. For now, I'm content with Faulkner. I may round that out by watching a series of Tennessee Williams plays and adding a dollop of Flannery O'Connor or the truly bizarre Carson McCullers, savoring for the moment the warmth of the tropics in the midst of the winter of my discontent.

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Faulkner Gives Gore a Helping Hand

from As I Lay Dying William Faulkner

[From the chapter narrated by Peabody the Doctor]

"Me, walk up, weighing two hundred and twenty-five pounds?" I say. "Walk up that durn wall?" He stands there beside a tree. Too bad the Lord made the mistake of giving trees roots and giving the Anse Bundrens He makes feet and legs. If He'd just swapped them, there wouldn't ever be a worry about this country being deforested someday. Or any other country.

Moments. Small moments of real humor along with many other moments. And more than this--perhaps something for tomorrow--Faulkner as one progenitor of magic realism? Consider the case of Darl, narrator extraordinaire. . . or rather, let us consider it together in the near future.

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Some Faulkner Moments


Once again, Faulkner's humor, mordant though it is, comes through in this story of the Bundrens.

from As I Lay Dying
William Faulkner

[Referring to Addie Bundren who lay on her bed dying as others are debating doing a lick of work to earn three dollars]

"But if she dont last until you get back," he says. "She will be disappointed."


[And somewhat later]

His folks buries at New Hope, too, not three miles away . But it's just like him to marry a woman born a day's hard ride away and have her die on him.

As I Lay Dying is the story of the Bundren clan Addie (dying), Anse (ne'er-do-well layabout of a husband), Jewel, Darl, Vardaman, and Cash (her four sons, the last of whom is working on her coffin just outside the window and Dewey Dell (her daughter). Told through the voices of all of them, Cora and Vern Tull, and a number of other characters, Faulkner himself thought of it as a tour de force, the one book he would leave behind that would be remarkable and make a mark. However, in his introduction to a later edition of The Sound and the Fury, while he recognized its worth, he noted that when he first set pen to paper, he already knew the last words of the book--an experience that did not satisfy him the way writing The Sound and the Fury did.

I know that I enjoyed this book when I first read it in high school, but I suspect that it is likely to be a very different experience for me now. At least I hope so.

Later:--That famous note may have been associated with the introduction to the 1932 edition of Sanctuary, not The Sound and the Fury. Sorry.

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In my commitment to revisit some "classics" and reacquaint myself with them, I decided to take on my least favorite of the Big Four of the early twentieth Century. Full disclosure--I do not like to read Ernest Hemingway. Part of it may be the macho trappings and myth of Hemingway--the truth of which I do not know, but the extent of which colors my perception of Hemingway. While I think that Hemingway was radical in his excision of much of the excess of prose of the very early twentieth century (exemplified by James at his most orotund), I think he went so far that direction that his prose is almost self parody. It is so stripped down that rather than a lean lyricism it becomes a kind of drone instrument--the things one is supposed to pay attention to become so obvious and so overbearing that it is almost painful. For example, the old man's dreams of lions on the beach obviously have some deep and symbolic purpose and meaning. I shouldn't be able to pluck the symbol out so easily, but it recurs throughout the work--the symbols are obvious and occasionally odious. However, they are also sometimes lovely as in this uncharacteristic moment for Hemingway:

The strange light the sun made in the water, now that the sun was higher, meant good weather and so did the shape of the clouds over the land. But the bird was almost out of sight now and nothing showed on the surface of the water but some patches of yellow, sun-bleached Sargasso weed and the purple, formalized, iridescent, gelatinous bladder of a Portuguese man-of-war floating close beside the boat. It turned on its side and then righted itself. It floated cheerfully as a bubble with its long deadly purple filaments trailing a yard behind in the waves.

"Agua mala," the man said. "You whore." . . .

From where he sung lightly against his oars he looked down into the water and saw the tiny fish that were coloured like the trailing filaments and swam between them and under the small shade the bubble made as it drifted. They were immune to its poison. But men were not and when some of the filaments would catch on a line and rest there slimy and purple while the old man was working a fish, he would have welts and sores on his arms and hands of the sort that poison ivy or poison oak can give. But these poisonings from the aqua mala came quickly and struck like a whiplash.

The iridescent bubbles were beautiful. But they were the falsest things in the sea and the old man love to see the big sea turtles eating them. The turtles saw them, approached them from the front, then shut their eyes so they were completely carapaced and ate them filaments and all. The old man loved to see the turtles eat them and he loved to walk on them on the beach after a storm and hear them bob when he stepped on the with the horny soles of his feet.

One can't help but wonder reading this whether Hemingway himself might not have taken the same delight.

This book is a little less lean and a little less overbearing than some by Hemingway. A recent blog correspondent informed me that it was a favorite of John Paul II and so I thought to take it up again and see if it struck me.

My conclusion is that it is one of those books that you really have to be there to understand. For example, I couldn't care less about fishing. I wouldn't know a dolphin (fish) from a tuna to save my life. I could probably identify a marlin pretty readily, and flying fish seem pretty obvious--but I am sea-illiterate. I also have never experienced the kind of physical trial that is discussed in the book.

That said, The Old Man and the Sea has been referred to as Hemingway meets God. And I suppose one could read it that way. Certainly it is meant to be read that way. The trial takes place over three days--three days in which the weight of the world is borne on the shoulders of one man, in which the single striking simile for pain compares the Old Man's pain to the pain of a nail attaching flesh to wood. And there is this striking reflection on sin:

from The Old Man and the Sea
Ernest Hemingway

But he liked to think about al things that he was involved in and since there was nothing to read and he did not have a radio, he thought much and he kept on thinking about sin. You did not kill the fish only to keep alive and to sell for food, he thought. You killed him for pride and because you are a fisherman. You loved him when he was alive and you loved him after. If you love him, it is not a sin to kill him. Or is it more?

"You think too much, old man, " he said aloud.

But you enjoyed killing the dentuso, he thought. He lives on the live fish as you do. He is not a scavenger nor just a moving appetite as some sharks are. He is beautiful and noble and know no fear of anything.

"I killed him in self-defense," the old man said aloud. "And I killed him well."

The dentuso referred to above is the mako shark who makes the first strike at the old man's hard won prey.

In all the book is interesting, and one could force Christian symbols on top of it and read it in a way about the agonies of Christ--but I'm not certain that the text bears that full weight. I find it difficult to read that way even though the obvious comparisons are there--fisherman, cross, and nails.

While I enjoyed revisiting this classic, and while I would recommend it to almost everyone as a quick and light exposure to Hemingway without some of the trappings that come with The Sun Also Rises or A Farewell to Arms, it did not have great resonance for me. Nevertheless, I will think about it for a few days and regard it as a palate cleanser in between bouts of Faulkner. My next read--the remarkable As I Lay Dying.

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Absalom, Absalom!--William Faulkner


I have reached the end and let me from the start make clear how I felt about it. Once upon a time my top five list looked something like this:

1. Ulysses James Joyce
2. To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf
3. The Golden Bowl Henry James
4. Lord of the Rings J.R.R. Tolkien
5. Tom Sawyer Mark Twain
6. Portait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce

I don't know I had ever considered much beyond this list. Now, I have a new second place prizeholder--Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner. I don't know that anything will ever displace Ulysses for sheer strength of story, prose, imagination, and writing. But Absalom, Absalom! has all of that AND it has great seriousness of purpose.

And today is a remarkably good day on which to review it precisely because of some of the nature of that purpose. Consider for a moment the following: The Absalom of the title, greated in an almost biblical way by his father near the very end of the book, encounters the following moral dilemma: a man he knows to be his half brother wants to marry his sister. With a great deal of effort and thought, he is able to come to terms with this. What he cannot come to terms with is the fact that this man Charles Bon is also one-sixteenth black, and therefore, in the eyes of the south a Negro. And this the man cannot bring himself to countenance.

A stark portrayal of the ingrained class structure and racism of the old South, it is, at once, savage, funny, disturbing, and deeply moving. The story unpeels, layer by layer, you sometimes learn something in a cast-off or aside in a speech of another character--a key clue to what is happening in the novel is just tossed out there. Usually it is developed further, but not always.

Faulkner plays with time, memory, incident, and character in the book. A good third of it is "making up" what really happened because there are gaps that no narrator can cover. So it is with history--we connect the dots we see, but the line connecting them may be missing dots we cannot. And yet, we personalize history by the stories we make up in the interstices--the stories that make history make sense to us. These are not "what really happened," as in many cases we cannot know--but they are the hooks on which we hang what we know and then move on.

Absalom, Absalom! is one of the most difficult books I have ever read--it may even, at times be more difficult than Ulysses. But the difficulty stems only in part from the convolute and involute prose. Another part of the difficulty comes as you try to piece together the past witht he characters and try to come to terms with the issues that have no terms that are acceptable.

Faulkner was a staunch supporter of the rights of African Americans. His language may not seem to reflect his sympathies, but it does indeed, and the compassion and power with which he writes about issues that stain the Old South is remarkable. He manages to explain much about those of us who are fiercely proud of our Southern Heritage and fiercely ashamed as well. How can it be one in the same. Well, read the book as a sympathetic reader and find out.

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Southern to the Core

from "William Faulkner: Heart in Conflict with Itself" John D. Anderson

Intruder in the Dust presaged Faulkner's speaking out on integration. He argued in several public letters that southern blacks must receive equal rights, which led to harassment and threats by bigoted neighbors. However, his resistance to federal intervention to enforce those rights alienated staunch liberals. Faulkner's moderate liberalism angered everyone.

Found here

I'll have to read a biography to verify this, though I've no reason to doubt it. Faulkner is Southern to the core and this stand is only one of many that demonstrates it. While he wants to do what is right, he wants it to come not from pressure from above but from the hearts of those who need to "get right." No federal intervention, because Faulkner felt the weight of the past and what that weight did to his beloved South. While this won for an oppressed people their freedom, the Federal Government of that time did little to relieve the crushed south and the freed slave population of the plight that had been inflicted upon it by years of war and its concomittant poverty. So much so that the legacy remains with us to this very day, with Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi amongst the poorest states in the union though at one time they ranked with all the others. Faulkner could see no good in this mode of operation (about which one could argue the wisdom). Had the movement risen organically from the people of the South we might still have with us the moderate voice of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. But had there been no intervention would anything at all have changed? One cannot tell, but if what is said above is true, Faulkner felt that the consequences would be more negative than positive, prolonging the agony of racism and bigotry. Who knows. Whatever the case may be--Faulkner shows himself in these opinions a true son of the South.

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Is Believing Seeing?

from Absalom, Absalom! William Faulkner

while one part of him said My brow my skull my jaws my hands and the other said Wait. Wait. You cant know yet. You cannot know yet whether what you see is what you are looking at or what you are believing. Wait. Wait.

Often we see beyond the thing we are looking at and into the inference we are making from it. This is one of the very common problems in science--a scientist can reasonably confuse inference with observation when what he wants is strong enough. In fact, I would accuse some evolutionary scientists of this problem. They want so much to see evidence for evolution that their "observations" cease to be descriptions of the natural world and become descriptions of their inferences from the natural order. Thus we have a plethora of books for agnostic and atheistic evolutionists who leap from the observations of the natural world to the inference of chaotic origin, all the while making a case for it being observation.

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One More--Wash Jones on Bravery


Hi all, I'm sorry, I'm just enthralled with the last part of this book and I'd probably post the entire last fifty or so pages I've read had I the time and the right. Because I have neither, let me regale you with one more excerpt:

from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

'. . . Because you are brave. It aint that you were a brave man at one second or minute or hour of your life and got a paper to show hit from General Lee. But you are brave, the same as you are alive and breathing. That's where it's different. Hit dont need no ticket from nobody to tell me that. And I know that whatever your hands tech, whether hit's a regiment of men or a ignorant gal or just a hound dog, that you will make hit right.'

Bravery isn't the matter of a moment but a matter of the heart and mettle.

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More Humor


"He overheard them before he could begin to not listen. . . "

William Faulkner, Abasalom, Absalom!

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Faulkner's Humor and Moral Vision


Throughout most of Absalom, Absalom! Thomas Sutpen, a key figure, could hardly be called sympathetic. He seems at time little less than a monster. In the last third, or so, of the book, Faulkner spends some time telling us about Mr. Sutpen and how he came to be who he presently is. What emerges is a man who much conflicted attempts to make his own way in the world by his own constricted and convoluted sense of morality and ends up precipitating the entire action of the novel.

Throughout the book there are moments of high humor even within the tragedy, pathos, or sheer chaos of the action. One of these moments occurs in the passage sited below.

from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

And then the shrewdness failed him again. It broke down, it vanished into that old impotent logic and morality which had betrayed him before: and what day it might have been, what furrow might he have stopped dead in, one foot advanced, the unsentient plow handles in his instantaneous unsentient hands, what fence panel held in midair as though it had no weight by muscles which could not feel it, when he realised that there was more in his problem than just lack of time, that the problem contained some super-distillation of this lack: that he was now past sixty and that possibly he could get but one more son, had at best but one more son in his loins, as the old cannon might know when it has just one more shot in its corporeality. So he suggested what he suggested to her [Miss Rosa Coldfield], and she did what he should have known she would do and would have known probably if he had not bogged himself again in his morality which had all the parts but which refused to run, to move. Hence the proposal, the outrage and unbelief; the tide, the blast of indignation and anger upon which Miss Rosa vanished from Sutpen's Hundred, her air-ballooned skirts spread upon the flood, chip-light, her bonnet (possibly one of Ellen's which she had prowled out of the attic) clapped fast onto her head rigid and precarious with rage.

The description of Miss Rosa's departure in irate indignation (fully justified) is a marvelous limned-in portrait right down to the last phrase which, while probably modifying "head" can be seen as modifying "her bonnet," in which case we get, "her bonnet rigid and precarious with rage." Even her clothing revolts against Thomas Sutpen.

But encased here is Faulkner's statement about so many of us. And it is a statement wise and true, and most particularly true when we try to operate on our own. ". . . [I]f he had not bogged himself again in his morality which had all the parts but which refused to run, to move." The quandary of modern humanity--we have all the component parts of a morality, all of the right concerns, all of the proper foci, all of the will and the energy, and no ability to implement. The parts are all there but if they are not connected into one smooth-functioning machine, they are useless--they are but spare parts or the old washing machine on the front porch--they identify us as surely as our names or the clothes we wear, they tell something about us, but they don't even serve as window-dressing.

Faulkner makes this point time and again and the downfall of Sutpen is directly related to his inability to get his moral life in order and functioning. And this inability is directly related to the fact that the society he occupies has refused the moral norms of the world in the "peculiar institution" they cling to with such ferocity.

It's interesting--Faulkner loves the South--deeply. He is a true son of the South and yet he can have no truck with the nonsense (on either side) of the War Between the States. The South cannot be justified because it has a moral laxity and a patent offense to natural law. The North cannot because they are not fighting a war to release a people from bondage, but a war that many of them fail to understand at all and so their "bringing freedom" rains down destruction and chaos (see some of my posts related to The Unvanquished.) In a sense Faulkner gets it exactly right and encapsulates the love-hate many of us who are partisans of the South have with our native land.

But I digress--and I digress because Faulkner is one endless digression on matters of such grave importance that it is a pleasure to read and to absorb all that he has to say. Absalom, Absalom! starts out as a kind of mystery and quickly evolves into a complex tale of moral nightmare, evil, delusion, self-determination, and the destruction not only of the person who fall prey to this, but to everyone around him. Thomas Sutpen is a moral cancer in a society that hasn't a firm grasp or understanding of God and His purposes, and as such he is a nexus of destruction and endless unhappiness--perhaps even contributing to Quentin Compson's decision later in 1910 to commit suicide (only after, fortunately, he left us his part of The Sound and the Fury).

And just to seal the point, let me finish the passage quoted above:

And he, standing there with the reins over his arm, with perhaps something like smiling inside his beard and about the eyes which was no smiling but the crinkled concentration of furious thinking:--the haste, the need for it; the urgency but not fear, not concern: just the fact that he had missed that time, though luckily it was just a spotting shot with a light charge, and the old gun, the old barrel and carriage none the worse; only next time there might not be enough powder for both a spotting shot and then a full-sized load;--the fact that the thread of shrewdness and courage and will ran onto the same spool which the thread of his remaining days ran onto and that spool almost near enough for him to reach out his hand and touch it. But this was no grave concern yet, since it (the old logic, the old morality which had never yet failed to fail him) was already falling into pattern, already showing him conclusively that he had been right, just as he knew he had been, and there what had happened was just a delusion and not actually exist.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave. . .

And again, a light touch in a very serious matter: "(the old logic, the old morality which had never yet failed to fail him)."

And so it is with the man who refuses his redemption and attempts to acquire it by his own merits.

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More Bookselling Surprises


States Ranked by bookstores per capita:

1. Wyoming
2. Vermont
3. Montana
4. New Hampshire
5. Iowa

34. Texas

38. Ohio
39. Florida

47. California

50. New York

Now, one must keep in mind that the lower rank doesn't come from lack of bookstores necessarily but from plethora of people. For example Wyoming has 39 bookstores for a population of 507,000 people. New York has 437 bookstores for a populaiton of 19,227,000 people.

Florida has 635 bookstores for 17, 397,000 people. Ohio has 426 for 11,459,000 people.

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From Publisher's Weekly

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Major Adult bestsellers of the year:

Adult Fiction: Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns 1,377,000
Adult NonFiction:Rhonda Byrne's The Secret 2, 947,000
Children's Ficiton: J. K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 7,740,000


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Wow--Chew on That!


After a break to read Pillars of the Earth and The Undercover Economist (about which, perhaps, more later) I'm back to Absalom, Absalom! and the fragrant (or reeking) climes of Yoknapatawpha County, and the rise, decline, and fall of the Sutpen family, with Quentin Compson and his father (Intrusions of The Sound and the Fury). And here's what I stumble upon:

from Absalom, Absalom!
William Faulkner

Yes, granted that, even to the unworldly Henry, let alone the more travelled father, the existence of the eight part negro mistress and the sixteenth part negro son, granted even the morganatic ceremony--a situation which was as much a part of a wealthy young New Orleansian's social and fashionable equipment as his dancing slippers--was reason enough, which is drawing honor a little fine even for the shadowy paragons which are our ancestors born in the South and come to man- and womanhood about eighteen sixty or sixty one. It's just incredible. It just does not explain. Or perhaps that's it: they dont explain and we are not supposed to know.

And doesn't that last line explain a good deal of Faulkner?

Nevertheless, I revel in it, in a way that I cannot seem to do with Hemingway, Steinbeck, or other contemporaries (except perhaps Georgette Heyer and Agatha Christie).

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Books, Books, Books

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As you can well imagine, my Christmas was filled with books. I set aside Absalom, Absalom! to pick up Pillars of the Earth but will soon return again to the comfortable and bizarre world of William Faulkner. I have Michael Dirda's The Classics for Pleasure which I will get to soon.

In addition, I used Christmas gifts to go out and buy books I would never consider getting for myself. So I ended up with The Landmark Herodotus which will sit alongside my Landmark Thucydides. I much prefer Herodotus to Thucydides as "fun reading"; however these editions make for fun and informative reading of either resource.

Also picked up The Undercover Economist who has a great deal to tell us about markets, economics, and how to buy coffee or groceries. Right now I'm reading a fascinating chapter about the auctioning of the electromagnetic spectrum as it relates to game theory.

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I am not gaga over Oprah either way. I don't see her as the new messiah, nor do I see her as the apotheosis of evil. However, I do respect the fact that she leads many of her viewers to new and interesting books. While the majority of her bookclub were probably already readers, I can't help but wonder if her work hasn't encouraged some of the sluggish. The reason I mention her is that Pillars of the Earth was one of her book-club selections and that indirectly influenced my bookgroup's decision to read it.

I've tried to read it several times, in fact, I thought I had read it through once, but upon finishing the book I concluded that I never got much past the introduction. Most likely this was because the length of the book itself was daunting and I found other more pressing things to occupy my time with. I'm very pleased that at last I've found cause to read it.

The book is the story of the building of a Cathedral and the scheming, politics, and sheer human cussedness that surrounds it. Initially it appears to be the story of Thomas Builder and an assorted cast of characters, but it rapidly becomes a real pageant of people, places, and events during the turmoil of the reigns of Stephen and Maud. It ends during the reign of Henry II.

I have only a couple of minor quibbles with the book. One is with the author's tendency to sprinkle in sex scenes and a certain amount of vulgarity which, while probably representative of the time, had the effect of pulling me out of the story and into an analysis of why the author did what he did. The second is with an occasional bout of linguistic anancrhonism. For example, at one point a character hesitates from doing something because he thinks that the woman he is with will "make a scence." For whatever reason, when reading a book set in Medieval times, it is extremely jarring to have an introduction of this kind of thing.

Despite some infrequent questionable choices by the author, the book moves quickly and one comes to sympathize deeply with many of the characters. The story is logical, logically developed, and suitably reflective of life during chaotic times. It is a story of passionate intensity and devotion to a cause and it is the story of the growth of a town. It is, in some small way, also the story of redemption of several seemingly irredeemable characters.

Well worth while, but (for home-schooling moms) not for the kids.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Books and Book Reviews category from January 2008.

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