Wednesday, June 26, 2013

As I Lay Dying

William Faulkner's Nobel Prize-winning novel As I Lay Dying handily solidified the author's leading position among all authors (alongside Dostoevsky and Tolstoy), in this blogger's humble opinion.  It is a fantastic story with memorable characters and an impeccable writing style.  Faulkner was known to refer to it as his "tour de force," a label with which I cannot disagree.

The book's premise is simple enough; the execution is anything but.  Addie Bundren, matriarch of a poor, tragically flawed family in Yoknapatawpha County, is dying.  By the time her husband, Anse Bundren, sends for the doctor, it's too late for him to do anything.  With her passing, Anse is determined to fulfill his promise to her: to bury her in Jackson alongside her own family.  Difficult in even the best of times, this is made nearly impossible by the storm that just passed, washing out the various bridges within wagon-driving distance.

The book is told through the perspectives of the Bundrens (Anse, Addie and their children Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell and Vardaman), as well as their friends and neighbors and members of the larger community.  Each chapter continues (or fills in) the story, and in doing so, fleshes out the narrator's and other characters' stories.  Herein lies Faulkner's gift.  Through stream of consciousness storytelling and the use of internal monologues (that of one narrator, in particular, being clearly more intellectual than the character himself could be), the reader understands the motivations and challenges of each character.  Woven together, it's a far more complex family - with far greater problems and historical baggage - than you'd imagine.

Reading none of the characters presents the difficulty of interpretation found in the brilliant The Sound and the Fury, making this book much more accessible.  It would be a wonderful introduction to Faulkner's complexity - and to his writing style - and to Southern Gothic literature at large.  I'd recommend it without reservations to anyone.

Next up: The behemoth The Count of Monet-Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.  A fellow Doestoevsky fan says it's her favorite book of all time.  How can I resist?

Monday, June 17, 2013

AOK top 25, 2013 edition

The other day, Joker reminded me that I needed to publish my updated top 25.  I was shocked to see it's been over three years - and oh, so many books - since I'd done it last!  The top 10 remains mostly the same, but major shifts in the next 15. 

1. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky's masterpiece, and my favorite book of all time. It's why I love the Russians, and Dostoevsky first among them. Murder, love, dysfunctional families, the devil... Dostoevsky knows how to tell a compelling tale.  Full review here.

2. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The Devil comes to Moscow and all hell breaks loose. Full review.

3. Beloved by Toni Morrison. Powerful, horrifying and beautiful story of slavery and its aftermath. Full review.

4. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. A poetic portrait of English aristocracy, a highly personal examination of the Catholic church, and an insightful dive into personal relationships. Full review.

5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Epic story of the Bolkonsky and Rostov families during the Napoleonic Wars. Full review.

6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner. The most difficult book on my list, hands down. Faulkner is a difficult read under the best of circumstances; throw in one narrator with severe mental retardation and others who are unreliable and you're up for a challenge. In this case, though, it is worth the effort. This story of a tragic Southern family showcases the extraordinary talent one of the country's greatest writers.

7. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Ambitious and captivating, Murakami blends dreams and reality in this story about a Tokyo house-husband's search for his missing cat. Full review.

8. Emma by Jane Austen. Flawed and self-delusional but charming and witty, Emma takes Harriet Smith, a sweet girl from a lesser societal rank, under her wing and commences matchmaking. Full review.

9. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Another doorstop of a book at over 1100 pages, Infinite Jest is certainly a commitment. Alternating between a halfway house and an exclusive tennis school, Wallace weaves together numerous sub-plots, zany characters and political satire in the near-future Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (calendar years now having corporate sponsors). Also notable for its prodigious use of acronyms and end notes.

10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The book follows the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov after he commits a gruesome crime. Can murder ever be justified? Is true punishment that which is handed out by the authorities, or the self-flagellation of regret?

11. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. The best one hit wonder of American literature, this high school required reading gave birth to some of literature's greatest characters: Atticus Finch, Scout and Boo Radley. The book is funny and warm, even while examining the serious issues of rape and racial inequality.

12. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I don't buy into this being one of the best love stories ever written, but this story of Humbert Humbert's obsession with a prepubescent girl is shocking and disturbing and wonderfully written.

13. Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. In the deranged world of Mark Renton and his so-called friends, heroin addiction is the prevailing force. It is a tale of greed, crime, Scottish identity, sexual morality and betrayal. The movie is excellent and bit disturbing; the book is really excellent and really disturbing.

14. Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. (2010 ranking #16) Textbook Faulkner: the epic decline and fall of a Southern family. Brilliantly written, memorable characters and the longest sentence ever published in a novel.

15. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. (2010 ranking #17) Randle P. McMurphy enters an insane asylum to finish out a prison term as the "bull goose loony." He torments old Nurse Ratched and urges his fellow patients to assert themselves.

16. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. (2010 ranking #18) Frodo Baggins saves Middle Earth; saga provides inspiration for generations of fantasy/sci-fi geeks.

17. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clark.  (Not ranked in 2010)  The pseudo-historical history of English magic.  Something of a grown-up Harry Potter, but mixed with elements of Jane Austen, David Foster Wallace and Mikhail Buglokov (all of whom, if you didn't notice, appear on this list, too).  One of the best contemporary novels out there.  Full review.

18.  The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.  (Not ranked in 2010)  Brilliantly written, complex tapestry of a novel about two sisters, one of whom commits suicide before the present-day events.  Includes a novel-within-a-novel, in a totally non-contrived way.  Full review.

19.  Persuasion by Jane Austen.  (Not ranked in 2010)  Perhaps Austen's tightest narrative, tells the story of Anne Elliot, still single at the ripe old age of 27 with - could it be? - two potential suitors.  Witty and clever, it's classic Austen at her best.  Full review. 

20. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. (2010 ranking #15) Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March grow up amid love and laughter. It was the first book I truly adored. I still cry more when Jo finds out that Amy married Laurie than I do when Beth dies. Full review.

21. A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh.  (Not ranked in 2010)  A biting satire of the British landed class, the book tells the story of the complete unraveling of a family.  Hysterically funny until it becomes wickedly macabre.  Full review. 

22. Sula by Toni Morrison. (2010 ranking #19) Short but complex, Sula explores relationships, sex, love, guilt and the difference between good and evil. Morrison captures the difficulty of post-emancipation life in the midwest, and breaks your heart several times while she does it. Full review.

23. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. (2010 ranking #20) "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Surprisingly modern, gossipy and easy to read.

24. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. (2010 ranking #21) The glamor of the Roaring '20s thinly disguises a society riddled with materialism and a lack of morality.

25. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. (2010 ranking #22) Fat, lazy Ignatius J. Reilly on a quest to find a job in New Orleans' French Quarter. Hilarius.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

It's Vancouver, eh?

After their Seattle stay, Aunt Jessie and Andy hit the northlands and spent some time in Vancouver.  That is a city I absolutely want to see (and ski)!  According to their postcard, there's even a rainforest up there.  Who knew?!  Looks stunning, and I'm intrigued by the Denver International Airport-esque rooftop on *something* in the bay there.

Bonus points for the use of a Canadian stamp.  Although we can't seem to identify the mutant baby animal on it.  A moose, maybe?

Friday, June 14, 2013

Hiking. Snow White. Big dancing chicken.

This evening we did something totally out of the ordinary with the kids.  We went to the Theatre-Hikes Colorado presentation of (a very interesting) Snow White, where we launched from the Buchanan Rec Center and hiked through the adjacent park.  It was a great call; we all loved it.

Snow White.  With chicken.
A little background on the organization.  Originally founded in Chicago ten or so years ago, Theatre-Hikes came to Colorado in 2009.  Tonight was their inaugural Evergreen performance.  Their usual venues are Chautauqua Park in Boulder and the Denver Botanic Gardens.  Their goal: to combine theater and the outdoors.  In this they succeed very well.  It's a short hike (in our case, very low intensity along a paved trail) between scenes.  The actors move ahead followed by the audience, and we set up our blankets (and poured another glass of wine) as we arrive at each new space. 

Fans on the move
We lucked out with a perfect evening: beautiful and sunny but not too hot.  The show itself was fun.  It's a quirky adaptation of the traditional fairy tale, told primarily from the perspective of the girl who grows up to become the wicked stepmother.  There's also a giant chicken with a fondness for jazz.  (Trust me; it works.)  The acting was solid - far better than I'd expected - and the jokes were funny to everyone from the Bunny on up to the gray hairs in attendance. 

The dwarfs
I'm just hoping that they'll bring their fall performance of Jekyll and Hyde to Evergreen so that we can round up a posse to join us!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

With love from Seattle

Aunt Jessie and Andy spent last weekend in the Pacific Northwest - an area of the U.S. and Canada that I have yet to really explore.  It sure sounds like a beautiful, fun place to visit, with tons of outdoorsy things to do and delicious food to eat.  My kind of party. 

They remembered the Bug and the Bunny on their travels, and sent them this postcard from Seattle.  I'm always amazed by Mt. Ranier's dominance over that city.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Great party idea, kid!

Last year was the Bug's first "friend birthday," and did we ever have a throw-down.  Practically every kid in the preschool along with our other friends' kids were in our back yard, throwing balls at each others' heads and doing daredevil tricks on the hammock.  It was a nutso insane, super fun, free-for-all.

This year, the Bug had her own idea.  She wanted to invite only a few friends (all girls, of course) to our house for an obstacle course, scavenger hunt and egg race.  Honestly, I thought it sounded a little weird.

So with all the end-of-the-year madness I didn't give it much (any?) thought after sending out the initial evite.  Until the night before.  Then I blasted some Lady Gaga Radio and came up with a vision. 

We planted the "obstacle course" (really, a series of games/activities) around the back yard, along with the kids' goodie bags.  The scavenger hunt items were all things that could potentially be found in our yard.  Each kid got one of these cards and a couple sheets of stickers, which they placed on the activities completed and items found until their card was full.  Honor system ruled.  Creative accounting was celebrated: Ladybug print on the raincoat? Fair game  Found a feather? What is a bird, really, if not a concentrated bunch of feathers.  (Incidentally, even though all wildlife steered very clear of our yard that day, each kid miraculously "found" a deer.)

The crowd favorite, despite all expectations - and despite the fact I only learned that the eggs were supposed to be hard boiled at midnight - was the egg race.  The kids just looped and looped around the relay.  Then some of them ate the eggs (!!!!) while others added them to their goodie bags.  One girl even decorated hers for her dad, to be presented two weeks later on Fathers' Day.  Oy.

It was a wild success.  Perchance I'll be less skeptical of the Bug's next brainstorm.