Book shelves series #47, forty-seventh Sunday of 2012
So this is what happens—books pile up. Okay, maybe that sentence is missing a clear subject: I pile books up.
This stack mounded on my record player over the last week; I intended to shelve about half of these:
My shelving solution is woefully short-term (more double stocked shelves).
Anyway, this shelf is mostly other media, including DVDs, a few records, and playing cards.
Of note (perhaps) are the three illustrated volumes on the left that I’ve had forever.
The illustrated Kidnapped features art by N.C. Wyeth:
The illustrated Kipling was actually my father’s:
Have you read Adam Novy’s novel The Avian Gospels? It’s good stuff.
Like many bibliophiles, I’m a sucker for plain Penguins:
Had a wonderful if sweaty trip to New Orleans last week.
Great food, great music, and great bookstores.
First up, Faulkner House:
Faulkner House is a tiny little shop just off Jackson Square. Its two rooms (really, a main room and a hallway) are lined from bottom to top with literature, poetry, and philosophy. I can’t overstate the excellence of the collection in here—all kinds of rare and beautiful tomes, signed stuff, local and localish stuff, etc (local gal Anne Rice was the closest thing I saw to genre fiction). It’s great to walk into a bookshop and see a near-complete collection of new NYRB volumes stacked prominently upfront along with new novels by Richard Ford and Teju Cole.
I picked up this handsome illustrated edition of Thomas Bernhard’s Victor Halfwit, the handsomeness and bigness and luxuriousness of which simply doesn’t come across in this lousy iPhone pic:
Random framed shot:
And a random two-page shot with glare:
My wife picked out three lovely editions from Everyman’s Library Pocket series, poems from Christina Rosetti, Emily Dickinson, and Emily Brontë:
The owner and the manager were very kind, knowledgeable, and tolerant of my questions about what kind of stock they moved (biggest seller, unsurprisingly, is Soldier’s Pay).
Info for Faulkner House, via bookmark (the manager put one in each book I bought):
A few days later after a three-Bloody-Mary-breakfast I stumbled into Crescent City Books:
This is a great shop that, like Faulkner House, doesn’t waste precious shelf space on glitter vampires or self-help books or novelty cookbooks. Lots of art volumes (many rare and in German, French, Italian, etc.), a large poetry section, philosophy, history, etc. Lots of great old prints too. And an old cat, who was basically boss of the place.
They also carry physical copies of Rain Taxi, which I haven’t seen in years.
I picked up Masquerade and Other Stories after a Biblioklept commenter recommended Walser (by way of Kafka). I read about half of this over the next few days (full review to come):
In his essay “The Dead Mule Rides Again,” Jerry Leath Mills argues
. . . there is indeed a single, simple, litmus-like test for the quality of southernness in literature, one easily formulated into a question to be asked of any literary text and whose answer may be taken as definitive, delimiting, and final. The test is: Is there a dead mule in it?
Mills’s convincing textual evidence draws on over thirty authors, but declares Cormac McCarthy “unchallenged king of literary mule carnage.” Some proof:
4. Decapitation by irate opera singer. Cormac McCarthy, who far surpasses even Faulkner in the mayhem he visits upon literary mules (see #s 5, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15), includes in his recent novel The Crossing (1994) the following dialogue about a mule whose recalcitrance proves insufferable to the artistic temperament of a singer assigned to tend him in a road company:
What was it he done to the mule?
He tried to cut off the head with a machete. . . .
I wouldn’t have thought you could cut off a mule’s head with a machete.
Of course not. Only a drunken fool would attempt such a feat. When the hacking availed not he began to saw. . . .
What happened to the mule?
The mule? The mule died. Of course
5. Drowning. This is Faulkner’s most commonly employed means of dispatch for the mules in his works. In the flood scenes he renders so effectively, we inevitably find drowned mules floating down river. As opposed to the train-struck animals in “Mule in the Yard” (see # 3), which are instrumental in developing motive and plot, Faulkner’s drowned mules tend to fall into the decorative or ornamental category, employed chiefly for drama, mood, and atmosphere. In As I Lay Dying (1930), for example, Darl recreates a wagon disaster in the surging stream: “Between two hills I see the mules once more. They roll up out of the water in succession, turning completely over, their legs stiffly extended as when they had lost contact with the earth”. In the “Old Man” sections of The Wild Palms (1939), the flood throws forth its “charging welter of dead cows and mules and outhouses and cabins and hencoops,” and Faulkner’s prose strikes an elegiac note as the convict’s skiff rides “even upon the backs of the mules as though even in death they were not to escape that burden-bearing doom with which their eunuch race was cursed”. Before the ordeal ends, the accumulation of mule carcasses reaches almost cosmic proportions as the stranded convict remembers “that other wave, the second wall of water full of houses and dead mules building up behind him in the swamp”.
Robert Morgan’s story “Poinsett’s Bridge” (1989) picks up the drowned mule topos in distinctly Faulknerian terms: “The body of a mule shot by in the current, and then a chicken coop”; but Cormac McCarthy (see #s 4, 6, 7, 9, 14, 15) varies it in Blood Meridian (1985) by having a mule drowned intentionally: “The Yumas were swimming the few sorry mules . . . across the river. . . . Downriver they’d drowned one of the animals and towed it ashore to be butchered”. (On recurrent uses of mules as culinary items see # 14.)
That the image of the drowned mule also occupies a subliterary folk status in the South is perhaps attested by a common simile in which a wealthy person is said to have “enough money to burn up a wet mule.”
6. Falls from cliffs. The novel Blood Meridian (1985) establishes Cormac McCarthy as unchallenged king of literary mule carnage. No fewer than fifty-nine specific mules die in the book, plus dozens more that are alluded to in groups and bunches. Mules are shot, roasted, drowned, knifed, and slain by thirst; but the largest number, 50 out of a conducta of 122 mules carrying quicksilver for mining, plummet from a single cliff during an ambush, performing an almost choreographic display of motion and color, “the animals dropping silently as martyrs, turning sedately in the empty air and exploding on the rocks below in startling bursts of blood and silver as the flasks broke open and the mercury loomed wobbling in the air in great sheets and lobes and small trembling satellites. . . . Half a hundred mules had been ridden off the escarpment”. (See also #s 4, 5, 7, 9, 14, 15.)
. . .
7. Fall into subterranean cavity. Near the conclusion of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God (1973), “Arthur Ogle was plowing an upland field one evening when the plow was snatched from his hands. He looked in time to see his span of mules disappear into the earth taking the plow with them” (195). These doomed mules qualify as highly functional in the story, since a search for their bodies leads to the discovery of a number of human corpses stored in the caves underground for sexual use by the necrophiliac Lester Ballard. (See also #s 4, 5, 6, 9, 14, 15.)
. . .
9. Gunshot wounds. The high quotient of gunplay in southern fiction quite naturally extends to some of the mules that grace its pages. . . .
Mules absorb lead throughout much of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), one providing a shield against incoming fire: “He . . . crouched under the ribs of a dead mule and recharged the pistol”.
. . .
14. Stab wounds. . . .
But mules are consumed readily by man, beast, and fowl in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (1985), and a character in Bernice Kelly Harris’s Purslane (1939) finds the practice a perfectly acceptable topic for mealtime conversation: “Uncle Millard near the foot of the table was telling about the Christmas dinner he ate in the pesthouse years ago, declaring it was fried dog and mouse stew with a slice of boiled mule”.
15. Thirst. Alkali flats in Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (1985) yield no shortage of “the black and desiccated shapes of horses and mules. . . . These parched beasts had died with their necks stretched in agony in the sand”
. . .
18. Submersion in domestic metaphor. Once again, Cormac McCarthy creates an exclusive category (see # 4) with a scene in Cities of the Plain (1998):
When he turned around Billy [Parham] was standing in the doorway watching him [John Grady Cole].
This the honeymoon suite? he said.
You’re lookin at it.
He leaned in the doorframe and took his cigarettes from his shirtpocket and shucked one out and lit it.
The only thing you ain’t got here is a dead mule in the floor.
Not quite two years ago, I wrote some pretty awful things about William Faulkner on this blog. In a review of his first published novel Sancutary, I argued, quite ineffectually, that, “Faulkner as an American Great is nothing but a scam.” Elsewhere, I proffered this ignorant nugget:
“…it seems that a few critics–notably Malcolm Cowley and Cleanth Brooks–decided either that a. Faulkner is really great and/or b. America needs a new master of literary fiction, and it might as well be Faulkner. It seems amazing to me that these two critics conned a whole generation into believing that someone whose books were so unbelievably poorly written was actually, like, a totally awesome and important writer.”
Ouch. At the time I wrote that rant, I was still in grad school, which is to say I was still being assigned reading by well-intentioned professors. I was also laboring under a cruel miscalculation, the mistaken belief that I had actually read most of Faulkner’s great works–As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, and Absalom, Absalom!–in my high school and undergraduate courses–where said books were assigned reading. The truth, I realize now, is that while Faulkner’s strange, dense, elliptical prose might have passed under my eyes, I completely failed to read his books when I was a young man. It wasn’t until last spring, when I read one of Faulkner’s last novels, Go Down, Moses, that I came to understand the genius of his writing, which is to say I came to learn to read his voices in a non-academic, non-studied fashion, intuitively and rhythmically. Go Down, Moses is strange and sad and funny and truly an achievement, a book that works as a sort of time machine, an attempt to undo or recover the racial and familial (in Faulkner, these are the same) divides of the past.
So. Skip ahead a year.
After reading Bolaño’s stunning 2666, I strategically read Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, knowing that I’d need a voice at least equal to Bolaño’s in order to not get totally bummed out and sort of paralyzed with that “What do I read next?” feeling. The strategy worked, but of course I needed a follow up book. So I picked up As I Lay Dying, the story of a poor rural family who labor to return their dead matriarch to her family’s home town for burial. I’d “read” the book in high school; I remembered the plot, but I could not in any way comment on it. This time, with the freedom to choose to read it–and perhaps, older, better equipped–I truly entered the book, entered into each of the character’s heads, their eyes, their voices. I “got” it.
I read As I Lay Dying in essentially three or four long sittings, sustained by Faulkner’s incomparable, engrossing language. I realize now that as a high school student, and then again as an undergrad, I resisted the book, attempted to impose my own consciousness into the narrative in order to “understand” the plot, rather than letting the book happen to me–which I believe is how one must read Faulkner. I was amazed how quickly I read the book once I attuned myself to Faulkner’s rhythm, and I was equally amazed at how conflicted and confused I felt about the story. I can’t recall a novel whose characters I’ve ever felt so hateful and sympathetic toward at the same time. Great, great book.
Anyway. The point of this post is to say, “Hey, I was wrong, mistaken, terribly wrong about Faulkner when I said he wasn’t a Great American Writer.” I suppose I’m also implicitly arguing that the necessary evil of assigned reading can sometimes be less necessary and more evil: How many kids are we turning away from the really great stuff forever by forcing it upon them when they are too young, too unequipped to appreciate it? The other side of this logic, of course, is to point out that often assigned reading can turn us on to great writers forever; this was the case for me, with most of what I read in high school. Still, as an English teacher I do worry that in assigning and then dissecting literature–under the pretense of explaining it and appreciating it and learning from it–we always run the risk of killing it, draining it of the very vitality that was the rationale for reading it in the first place. Of course, there’s a simple, simple antidote to reconciling yourself to all those books you hated in high school, those books you were supposed to love and be moved by and learn important and meaningful lessons from–you can read them again for the first time. The worst that could happen is a confirmation of your own prejudice; far more likely, in assigning your own reading, you’ll find something truly great and meaningful.
I’ve been reading a lot of Faulkner lately. This has nothing to do with me liking Faulkner (I don’t) or thinking that he’s an American master (at this point, I’m convinced that he’s not. Rather, it seems that a few critics–notably Malcolm Cowley and Cleanth Brooks–decided either that a. Faulkner is really great and/or b. America needs a new master of literary fiction, and it might as well be Faulkner. It seems amazing to me that these two critics conned a whole generation into believing that someone whose books were so unbelievably poorly written was actually, like, a totally awesome and important writer). I’m taking a class that requires me to read Faulkner.
Anyway, over the course of my reading, I got to thinking that the Coen brothers, two guys that have made some of the best American films ever (masterful films, certainly) are fond of Faulkner: the flood in O Brother Where Art Thou? hearkens to Faulkner’s novella Old Man (as does the whole milieu of that film really), the slow southern grotesque of Blood Simple is pure Faulknerian, ditto the gloomy doom of The Man Who Wasn’t There, and the failed screenwriter W.P. Mayhew in Barton Fink is essentially a caricature of Faulkner during his days in Hollywood.
So well and anyway, the Coens have a new movie coming out, No Country for Old Men, based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. Cormac McCarthy is often compared to Faulkner, though I have no idea why. They’re American? That’s it. They’re American. Like I said though, No Country for Old Men. Early reviews suggest that this is a return to form for the Coens, who have either been stumbling or just lazily cashing in lately (see: Intolerable Cruelty; The Ladykillers)–but we’ll have to wait until November to find out. For now, check out the trailer:
So today we (id est, Mrs. Biblioklept and myself) saw Knocked Up, which is pretty much the best pregnancy movie I’ve ever seen (yes, better than 9 Months, Parenthood and Father of the Bride 2 put together, and at least equal to Rosemary’s Baby, which I’m not really sure even counts). Judd Apatow (we mentioned our love of Mr. Apatow’s work in a previous post) assembled a host of familiar faces from his regular crew (including his wife and daughters) to make a funny and honest (although certainly hyperbolic) movie about love, relationships, having kids, growing older, and all that crap. Highly recommended. For a more detailed review, check out this Slate article (warning: this is a typical Slate article, i.e. the author starts by saying they basically like what they’re about to discuss before hemming and hawing over every little detail in an effort to pick it apart. Still, on the whole, the article’s pretty good).
Now, writing about movies and card games and TV shows is all well and good, but once upon a time this was a blog about books (sort of), and perhaps some of you feel that I’ve gotten particularly lazy in my reading. This is actually far from the case; in fact, all I’ve been doing lately is reading. Only the reading I’ve been doing has been for a grad class revolving around the figure of the libertine. Summer school. Yay. Not that the class has been boring per se, just not really something that’s translated into anything I’ve felt the urge to write about. The poems and biographical of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester have been of great interest–this guy was downright naughty. Also a relatively recent play about Rochester called The Libertine was particularly good (much better than the movie version starring Johnny Depp that came out a year or two ago). The current reading for the class, however, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, is more than I can bear. We are reading the abridged version, which is about 550 pages, paperback. The unabridged version is a large-sized small-print trade paperback topping 1600 pages. I have no idea what the editor cut out (neither do I care). The last time I read a book like this was in high school–Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Both novels are painfully long accounts of a young lady’s trying circumstances. In both novels nothing really happens, and anything interesting that does happen is so coded that you have to read between the lines to figure it out (“Huh? Did Tess get raped? Huh?” also, “Huh? Did Clarissa get raped? Huh?”). Maybe I’m just a lazy reader.
But being a lazy reader hasn’t stopped me from buying more books. My bibliomania persists unchecked, fueled by bargain blowout prices on last year’s hardback remainders and promises of free shipping from Amazon. A quick run down of what I bought this week, complete with odds that I’ll actually finish the book.
Sanctuary, William Faulkner
Intruder in the Dust, William Faulkner
The Portable Faulkner, ed. Malcolm Cowley
Fiction, Film, and Faulkner: The Art of Adaptation, Gene Phillips
Yes, I am taking a Faulkner class this summer. With the exception of the Phillips text, all materials were procured at my favorite local bookstore via store credit. Some of the books I used to get credit were not exactly mine. The Biblioklept strikes again! Likelihood that I’ll finish all of these: 99.9%. I’m a good student. I don’t cut any corners when it comes to class reading.
The Children’s Hospital, Chris Adrian
I’ve been wanting to read this all year; rave reviews all around. Likelihood that I’ll finish it: 50/50 might be generous. It’s pretty long (600 pages) and hardback (I have a very poor track record with hardback). I’ll give it a serious attempt in the two week window between the end of summer school and the fall semester. We’ll see.
U.S.!, Chris Bachelder
Another book I’ve heard only great things about. The Left (big-L) keeps reviving muckraker Upton Sinclair (you know, dude who wrote The Jungle) from the dead to help “the cause”; he is repeatedly assassinated. Likelihood that I’ll finish it: 99%–I started yesterday and am close to half finished. It’s very, very good, and I’ll try to review it later. It’s actually been a terrible distraction from Clarissa. Plus, according to the back of the book, Bachelder got his MFA from my alma mater, the University of Florida. So there.
Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon
I loved loved loved V. The Crying of Lot 49 was decent enough. Vineland was good enough, I suppose, albeit kind of silly. I’ve put down Gravity’s Rainbow more times than I can count. The first 100 pages of Mason & Dixon bored me to tears. Why did I buy this again? Oh, right, it was on sale. Likelihood that I’ll finish this: This book is hardcover and over a 1000 pages. Let’s just be honest–I will never finish this book. Maybe I’ll give it to a friend as a burdensome gift, a sort of annoying challenge.
I realize that this post has been overlong and probably looks like a weak attempt to compensate for not having written in some time (which it certainly is); however, it will have to suffice, gentle reader, for an indeterminate amount of time. Mrs. Biblioklept will be going into the exquisite labors of childbirth any minute now (really), so I’m not sure when I’ll have the leisure to post again. Until then.