Saturday, April 4, 2009

Themed Reading Reviews: Light in August, The Brothers K, and Dark Night of the Soul

Three down, one in progress, five to go on Themed Reading. So far my Guilty Conscience theme has yielded mixed results, but it makes sense that I might not love every book I chose. Two for three is a pretty good average.

Light in August: I thought I didn't like Faulkner, and boy, was I wrong! One book and I think he's a genius. He's not what I would call a fun read, though, because his themes are the big ones: race relations in the post-Civil War segregated South, illicit sex in many forms, fear, despair, lost identity, disappointment, the power of secrets . . . you name it, it's all here. But the man can write. This book was enough to convince me that I want to read everything else he's written.

Faulkner weaves together the story of 9-months-pregnant Lena Grove, placidly on the trail of the man who seduced and abandoned her, apparently never entertaining the idea that her lover might not want to be found, and Joe Christmas, a biracial man whose personal history and mixed blood effectively alienate him from everyone he meets. Throw in a disgraced minister, a Yankee abolitionist spinster, a local bumbler who tries to do the right thing but hardly ever succeeds, and a bunch of good old boys, and what Faulkner produces is a complete picture of a southern town's inhabitants but never a stereotype.

Excerpt: A stranger charitably brings Lena Grove home for the night, and his wife reacts:

"And she expects to find him there. Waiting. With the house all furnished and all."

He cannot tell from her voice if she is watching him or not now. He towels himself with a split floursack. "Maybe she will. If it's running away from her he's after, I reckon he's going to find out that he made a bad mistake when he stopped before he put the Mississippi river between them." And now he knows that she is watching him: the gray woman not plump and not thin, manhard, workhard, in a serviceable gray garment worn savage and brusque, her hands on her hips, her face like those of generals who have been defeated in battle.

"You men," she says. . . . "You durn men."

The Brothers K: Now for a dose of the contemporary and completely different. This one was a winner, too. I loved the baseball theme, I loved the sweep of it, and I think I would love it even more if I'd read the original The Brothers Karamazov. Duncan creates characters that are eccentric, flawed, and slightly larger than life, but still believable and engaging. I'm a sap when it comes to an emotional moment or a climactic scene, and this one had me laughing and crying all the way through. The different forms and voices are particularly memorable. I usually dislike that technique--give me an old-fashioned, sustained narrative any day!--but this patchwork includes hilarious excerpts from one brother's 9th grade English essay ("HISTORY OF MY DAD . . . February 25 1951 was a day even those of my family members not yet born fondly remember.") and various family letters, backed by sustained commentary from a smart, likeable narrator with a writer's soul.

The Chance family is crazy like every family is crazy. After being disabled in a mill accident, the father recovers his sense of himself as a man and as a baseball player by secret practices in a pitching shed he builds in the backyard. The mother doses the entire family with religion, with varying degrees of success, and faces her personal test of faith with (eventually) remarkable clarity. The narrator, Kincaid ("Lucky I wasn't born in Stenechkudee!") Chance provides the insightful, relatively stable center around which the parents and other siblings revolve during the turbulent 1960's. One brother joyfully submits to the draft for complex religious reasons, another brother flees to Canada to avoid it, and the third seeks spiritual enlightenment in India. Family division and crisis are followed by reconciliation in unexpected ways. You can't go wrong with this one.

Excerpt: On the baseball field, Kincaid hears the coaches derisively mention poetry:

[A]nd the day grew not perfect, nor still, but still enough to hear perfectly the singing of a thousand red-winged blackbirds in the swamp beyond our diamonds . . . and their song came raining out of the cottonwoods, innocent, joyous, pouring over anyone willing to listen. The rush of understanding was too quick and condensed and physical to call a "thought": I simply knew, via song, sunlight, redwings and cottonwoods, that there was a world I was born to live in, that the men I was standing beside lived in another, and that as long as I remembered this, their words would never hurt me again.

Dark Night of the Soul: As wonderful as the others were, this one was twice as horrible to read. It started with a poem, and was supposedly the explication of the poem. But I have no idea what the author was talking about, and he went on about it at some length. The poem sounds like it's about a lover slipping out in the dark of night to steal time with his or her beloved, so I was all Romeo and Juliet about that. But I was never able to make the leap to the soul looking for God, no matter how much that was explained. I just didn't get it.

Let's just say I experienced my own dark night of despair upon reaching Book Two, Chapter XI and learning that it "[b]egins to explain the second line of the first stanza." Gah! Eleven chapters into the second section, and we're only on the second line? Christian mysticism is NOT for me.

Excerpt? Forget it. I wouldn't do that to you.

If you really must know, look here.


  1. I love your Guilty Conscious theme! Great idea.

    Light in August made me love Faulkner as well. I only just got around to it about a year ago. It blew my socks off.

    As an Oregonian, I am supposed to love Duncan. And Brothers K is on my iPod rigt now. But I just finished The River Why and I think I need a Duncan break before tackling another. The River Why was fun for a while, but it just got too cheeky -- too pleased with itself -- by the end. I know he wrote it a long time ago. Brothers K must be more mature. But still, I need a little time.

    I'll skip your third choice. :)

  2. By the way -- I tried to find links to your Booker and National lists so I could add them to my posts, but couldn't. If you have prize-winner progress posts to link to, leave them in a comment on my related list posts and I will add them

  3. Well, I've got two more to put on the list. It's growing faster than I am....scary.

  4. Yes, Rose City, it feels good to clear out those "leftovers" on the shelf and make room for more.

    I can see where you might need to give Duncan a rest. Sometimes multiple books by one author is too much of a good thing for me. It's like I've seen that act before.

    Maybe I'm glad I read Brothers K first!

    Booker and Orange links coming your way!

  5. Oreneta, I hear you! Keeping the TBR list manageable is a major challenge for me.

    Wait. Who am I kidding? I have about 200 books TBR. It's clearly out of control (not that there's anything wrong with that).

    One of the nice things about challenge reading is the bite-sized pieces.


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