Category Archives: Books

Hey Jude

Image result for a little life

I was in Dallas over the holidays, and I made my usual trip to Half Price Books on Northwest Highway. While I was browsing the Clearance section, looking for my obligatory $10 worth of books, I saw a copy of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I was familiar with the book–the cover is hard to forget–and it seemed like a great purchase for $2. I didn’t expect to ever read it, to be honest. It’s 814 pages long, for god’s sake, and I assumed it would take a place next to Atlas Shrugged and Infinite Jest in my collection of “Books I own and can talk about casually without ever having read.” This might sound like a ridiculously illogical view of purchasing books, but that’s a different blog post. Sometime during that day in December, between meals and laughs with friends, I found myself reading the first few pages. There’s nothing particularly stunning or unique about those first pages, but for some reason I remember thinking to myself, “I think I might actually read this book. And finish it.” It’s now February 3rd, and a few minutes ago I finished reading pg. 814 and closed A Little Life for the last time. I estimate that I probably picked up and opened the book somewhere around 100 times over the last month, sometimes squeezing in 1-2 pages between classes, and other times reading in one- and two-hour chunks (which is very long for me). It’s towards the top of the list of longest single works I have ever read (maybe second only to Murakami’s 1Q84), and I’ve got to be honest: I’m sad that there aren’t more pages past 814. Simply put, reading A Little Life was time very well spent.

Usually, when I finish a book, I immediately get online and read reviews (New York Times; Kirkus; The New Yorker). I have not done this yet for A Little Life. Instead, I want to get my own thoughts and reactions down before I’m swayed by what anyone else has said.

The easiest way to summarize the book is that it’s about a group of four college roommates–JB, Malcolm, Willem, and Jude–living in New York City. The novel traces around four decades of their lives, starting as they begin to try and figure out their lives as an actor, artist, architect, and lawyer. Like I said above, the book is 814 pages long, so lots of aspects of each of their lives are covered. Two of them are black; two are white. Two come from affluent families; two do not. They are diverse in their sexuality, their professional successes and failures, and their sense of self-awareness. I don’t mean to imply that the four main characters collectively depict the “Everyman” experience, because this is not the case. Yanagihara does not give us a novel that is malleable to all sorts of American experiences; she gives us a very specific group of characters that have particularly nuanced experiences. All four characters maintain presence throughout the book, but the focus narrows by page 300 or so, when it becomes clear that the central emotional lens of the novel is on the most enigmatic and compelling of the four: Jude St. Francis.

I get teary-eyed whenever I read McCarthy’s The Crossing and re-experience the heartbreak of Billy Parham, and I am still not quite able to handle the emotional realities of the decision that Sethe makes in Morrison’s Beloved, but no character has inspired in me such deep astonishment, sympathy, and sadness as Jude St. Francis. In the first 100 pages of the novel, we know that Jude keeps to himself and walks with a slight limp, but it’s also quite clear that Yanagihara is preparing us for what’s to come in terms of Jude and his past. And what’s to come is, to be honest, some of the most horrific personal baggage you can imagine. Jude’s childhood is belittling, abusive, and destructive in every category, and there are times later in the book where I found myself simply wishing that I didn’t have to learn more about neither the horrible things that were done to him in the past, nor see how these past traumas tangibly affect his daily adult life. A friend of mine used the phrase “suffering porn” when referring to the book, and I’m sure she’s not alone in that assessment. Her take of the novel was positive, but I have no doubt that plenty of readers and reviewers have commented on the extent to which Jude’s life is full of trauma and whether or not a single person could have realistically gone through so much and survived. Does Yanagihara go too far with Jude? A fair question, and there were moments during my reading when I too found myself adamantly denying that any child could go through these things.

Of course, children do go through these things. Adults do horrible things to children, and those children turn into adults that do horrible things to themselves. This is not always the case, but it is the case for Jude. And as difficult as the book was to read at times–as shocking and nauseating and maddening as it was–what ultimately rose to the surface for me was a camaraderie I felt with the rest of the characters in the novel based upon a similar desire: I wanted to tell Jude that he did matter, that he wasn’t disgusting, that he deserved happiness and was worthy of love. This is what Willem wants. And Harold and Julia. And JB and Malcolm. And Andy, and Richard, and the Henry Youngs, and basically every other person in the novel that comes in contact with Jude. For 814 pages, they seek a key to the lock of Jude’s self-hatred, and I find myself still on that same search. I am not happy with how the book ends, nor am I satisfied with what I know–and don’t–about Jude. But it seems as if this is Yanagihara’s point. The most destructive part of abuse like this is the belief it instills in the abused that he or she deserved it. In the final pages of the book, Richard describes Jude as “stubbornly believing everything he was taught about himself.” This is the central tragedy of the novel, and it is one that will not quickly leave me.

All of that being said, the book is full of beautiful moments: moments of hope, and pleasure, and fulfillment. Moments of laughter and simple happinesses with groups of people that love each other. The book is full of touching depictions of the best, most true, and most worthwhile parts of friendship and of romance, of family and of the self. And at the end of this book full of all sorts of horrible things, the last page is one of the most beautiful I have ever read. My favorite line is when Richard articulates how Jude’s impact in his daily life: “And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

For me, A Little Life is a lesson in caring. It is a lesson in relationships. It is a lesson in how I view myself. And, most importantly, it is a lesson in how there are some problems that cannot be fixed by having good friends, but there are many others that can.


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The best movie I’ve seen twice in a long time.

I often complain in my classes about the state of movies. Specifically, I echo many other pretentious people like me in their complaints about how hard it is to find a movie in the theater that I want to go see. Instead, my Century and Cinemark and AMC are loaded with comic book movies, tired remakes, or a story about something that’s haunted (a doll, a house, a Polaroid camera, etc.). I get on my soapbox, make my complaint, and continue with my lecture about Emerson or rhetoric. I get it: I’m a cliche English professor, and I am not that original.

There are lots of problems with this too-sure-of-himself professor complaining about movies, but the one that sticks out the most to me is that I have recently realized that my complaints are simply wrong. Yes, my theaters are loaded with movies that I do not want to see, but there are also LOTS of movies that fit my narrow definition of “good” and “worthwhile.” People are still making great movies, just like people are still writing great books and poems and songs. It’s easy to say that Hollywood has sold out, but it’s also lazy and, to be honest, disrespectful to the people out there that are still telling great stories through film. I saw lots of great movies in the past couple of months–more than enough to prove myself wrong. They weren’t all in the theater, but plenty of them were. Here’s a list:

Paterson (on Amazon Prime):

A Ghost Story (on Amazon Prime):

The Big Sick (on Amazon Prime):

The Disaster Artist (in the theater):

The Post (in the theater):

I enjoyed all of these movies for different reasons. Collectively, they offer everything that I look for in movies. Some are serious, others hilarious, others confusing and frustrating, and all of them are well-made and captivating. I loved watching all of them, and I recommend them to anyone.

But there’s one movie in particular that I saw that convinced me more than any other that my complaints about comic book movies are nothing more than distractions from what I should be spending my time on: finding and seeing movies that are meaningful. The best movie I saw in 2017 (and again in 2018) is without a doubt, hands down, Lady Bird.

I cannot say enough about how much I love this movie. I found myself laughing throughout the entire thing, out loud, which is not normal for me, but I also was totally invested emotionally. It’s hilarious, but that humor is matched with serious, deep emotion. There are serious things in this movie, but the movie does not take itself too seriously. It’s organic in the same way that Manchester by the Sea was, but it’s a much more enjoyable viewing experience. I don’t know how else to put it other than it simply feels real. All of the notes that it aims for it hits in perfect tune. The relationships are authentic, the conflicts are all-too-realistic, and the overall tone is one of the best I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing. I’ve never been a teenage girl, but I am convinced that Lady Bird‘s depiction of this experience is the best ever captured on film. It doesn’t miss a beat.

There’s a line in the movie where Lady Bird is talking to her teacher, who tells her that she writes about her hometown (Sacramento) with such love. Lady Bird reacts flippantly, saying that she simply pays attention. The teacher responds, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” What a simple, beautiful thought.

It’s so good. If it’s playing in your town, go see it. If you don’t end up liking it, don’t tell me.

This movie will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards in March. It’s better than Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. It’s not even close. Ronan and Metcalf should win statues, too. And Gerwig. Basically, it should win everything except for costumes and music and the technical ones.

– – – – – – – – – –

Once you get done seeing Lady Bird, I also suggest reading this book:

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Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated into English in 2017)

This is a German novel (didn’t realize that when I bought it) about a retired professor in Berlin that gets personally attached and caught up in the refugee crisis. The storytelling is much different than what I am used to, and there were times where I wasn’t sure what I thought about it. But once I got traction, I was into it. It’s a book about important things, and the message it conveys is one that needs to be heard. As a lifelong Texan teaching at a small university, I have absolutely zero understanding of the refugee experience or of what is going on around the world with refugees. This book didn’t change that, but it made me much more aware of my ignorance, and it posed questions that, frankly, I was not prepared to answer. It seems to me like this is what all great books should do.

Cheers to a new semester.

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Life after Paris


“There were no problems except where to be happiest” – Hemingway, A Moveable Feast

I spent three nights and four days in Paris last week with my students. All of my travels, trips, and excursions in the States and abroad will hereafter reside in two categories: Before I first visited Paris, and After. After around 72 hours there, it is far-and-away my favorite city in the world. I’ll do a rapid fire of pictures, and then I’ll write a bit about why I loved it so much.


^ The main entry-way of the Louvre. To say that the museum is big is an understatement. It’s scope and breadth is simply unbelievable. I was tired before I even got through security.


^ A picture of everyone else taking pictures of a famous picture.


^ One of the many looooong Louvre hallways.


^ One of the famous panels of Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musee de l’Orangerie, which was my personal favorite of the museums I went to in Paris.


^ Not sure why, but this one (Konto by Kazuo Shiraga) really grabbed my attention. I stared at this for a couple of minutes, completely perplexed yet totally captivated.


^ The amazing stained-glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle.


^ The best food I’ve had yet in Europe. The schawarma pita sandwich at L’As du Fallafel. Simply perfect.


^ My students at our awesome, memorable evening picnic on the lawn right next to the Eiffel Tower. A couple of students and I simply walked down the street, found a butcher shop next to a bakery, and told them we wanted to have a picnic. They loaded us up with a variety of meats, cheeses, and breads, and we were not disappointed.


^ The view from the mid-way point up the Eiffel Tower. From here, we made our way to the very top, just in time for the first twinkle at 10pm. It was a very long process from getting tickets to actually getting to the top (about 2.5 hours), but my students were thrilled and it ended up being worth it.


^ And, of course, Shakespeare and Company, which might be the most famous bookshop in the world. I was in there three times during my trip, and each time I could have stayed longer. It oozes literary history, and the collection of books (although over-priced) is superb.

Many authors have written about the allure of Paris. I’ve read so many of these, and I’ve never been able to quite understand what it was about this particular place that was so special. Now that I’ve been there, I still don’t quite understand it completely, but I know exactly what they mean. There’s simply something about the city that is perfect for someone like me: someone that appreciates food, art, literature, and more food. Paris is a huge city, and I know that residents do not spend every day walking along the Seine, reading great novels, and eating expensive meals. They have jobs, they have problems, and they have the same daily aggravations that we all have to deal with. But, as a tourist, the city is absolutely perfect. The options for places to eat, drink, and/or read are endless. I spent time outside of cafes right next to the Louvre eating cake and reading; I spent time in the Tuileries Gardens sitting by a fountain enjoying lunch; I spent hours walking down the river, listening to music and browsing through the bouquinistes stocks of old books and random posters. All of this time was peaceful, and somehow I was able to feel comfortable, unhurried, and even uncramped. I don’t know how this is possible, because there were people, cars, and movement all around me. But something about the river, the old buildings, and the cafes creates some sort of subconscious peace for someone like me. To put it simply, it was exactly what I’ve always hoped for in a foreign place.

Most of my students are equally enamored with the city. We didn’t see a fraction of what Paris offers, and most of what we did fits squarely into the “classic tourist-y things in Paris” category. That didn’t matter. We all loved it. We did a Fat Tire bike tour; a boat ride up and down the Seine; and we went to the top of the Eiffel. We ate lots of great food, walked around 35 miles total, and overpaid tremendously for canned sodas. We were able to sit in the same spots and walk through the same door frames as the people we’ve been reading in class, like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin. All of these experiences together created something that I will never forget. I hope they don’t, either.

– – – – – – –

This is our last week in Oxford. The plan:

  • Tonight: Dinner and then Much Ado about Nothing at Wadham College.
  • Tomorrow: Walking tour of New College.
  • Wednesday: A visit to Wheatley to find a specific sandwich shop, and then an attempt to find C.S. Lewis’s house and/or grave.
  • Thursday: Farewell dinner at the Trout.

Once my students head to Heathrow on Friday morning, I am catching a train to Cardiff, Wales for the weekend. I have absolutely nothing planned, but I’ve been told that it’s a great city. Back to Oxford on Sunday afternoon, and then one final trip before I return to Texas: I’m heading back to Paris for two more nights. I simply didn’t get enough last week, and I couldn’t resist the chance to go back. More reading. More walking. More food. And, this time, ample libations.



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Across the Pond

In nine days, I board a plane to London. Once I wake up, get off the plane, go to the bathroom, and make it through customs, I catch a train to Oxford. After getting off at the last stop (Gloucester Green), I take a quick 5-minute taxi ride and end up at the ACU Study Abroad houses, my home for the following 31 nights. While there, I will walk everywhere, eat amazing breads, make a fool of myself, and get rained on a lot. I haven’t actually experienced any of these things; this is just what people have been telling me to expect.

Saying I’m excited isn’t really accurate. Excitement is undoubtedly a large part of what I’m feeling. I’m excited about the group of students with whom I’m going. I’m excited about the books we are reading for the class. About the 3-day trip to Paris to visit the cafes and museums. About the breadth of opportunity I will have at my fingertips. And about the similar opportunities my students are going to have.

But I’m not only excited. I’m also anxious. A bit unsure of myself. Maybe even a tad bit scared. What if we get to Paris and I lead my class down a wrong street? What if one of my students loses his or her passport? What if Diet Coke tastes different in Europe? I repeat: WHAT IF DIET COKE TASTES DIFFERENT IN EUROPE? I get it: these types of “problems” are what study abroad is all about. Being put in new situations in different contexts is at the heart of fruitful experiences, and I’m totally onboard with that. I look forward to the inevitable hiccups and roadblocks during the month I’m there. Sign me up. But to say I’m not a tad bit anxious would be a lie. I assume that anyone approaching a long trip abroad has that same mix of emotions, and I guess that this is part of what’s so great about it.

I mentioned the Paris trip. I also have a ticket to Saturday’s round of the Open while I’m there, which is at Royal Birkdale in Liverpool. If you watch the coverage, look for the large American rooting on Phil. Once the class ends, I’ve got six days of open travel. Not sure exactly where I will go, but I know that I will be alone, I will be open-minded, and I will definitely spend more money than I have budgeted. Top of my list right now is a week in Amsterdam and Brussels, but Spain also beckons.

Beyond the excitement and the butterflies, though, is an overwhelming feeling of luck and blessing. I honestly cannot believe that I have the opportunity to travel to Europe for a month to teach an American literature class. I get to hang out every morning with a talented, diverse, and challenging group of students, talk about Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Baldwin, continue the conversations over lunch, and then say, “Okay–go explore! Seeya again tomorrow morning.” How is this real? How do I get paid for this? I guess this is just another moment where those eleven years of higher education feels so much more than worth it.

I’m happy to get any suggestions any of you might have about Oxford, about England, or about European travel in general. My main goals are to eat well, teach better, visit pubs (for their historical value, of course), and help my students have the time of their lives.

I plan on being a duke or earl by August 1. That’s what happens when you marry British royalty, correct?

– – – – – – –

Things to Read, Watch, and Listen:

Read: All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy. A classic, but a goody. If that’s not your thing, then read a short story by Jhumpa Lahiri or Lorrie Moore.

Watch: The Keepers (Netflix); Paradise Lost trilogy (HBO); Amanda Knox (Netflix); I recently went on a bigtime true crime documentary bender. I love that stuff.

Listen: Sylvan Esso’s most recent album, What Now, and any Pearl Jam album from the 90s. I recently revisited all of them; I don’t want to say I had forgotten, but I was seriously reminded how good those albums are.

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I forgot I had a blog.

Luckily, I remembered.

The best part of forgetting you have a blog? And not posting anything for over a year? You can actually read your old posts with a sense of distance, which is basically impossible to do while you are in the mode of actually writing them. Weirdly, I stumbled back upon my old blog and read through a few posts as if I wasn’t aware that I was the one that wrote them. Of course, this me of 2015 is not the same me of 2017. [Imagine a few sentences here about ontology, Freud, and various psychological studies concerning views of the self]. There are some parts of my old posts at which I cringe, with the stereotypical “Why’d I say that” reaction, but there are others where I am quite fond of my writing. But this is to be expected, and even though a year away offers a certain degree of objectivity, I’m still biased towards myself. That’s what a blog like this is for, I believe.

Things have happened since my last post in 2015:

  • I finished my first full year as a tenure-track professor. I can honestly say that I thoroughly enjoyed that first year, and I am enjoying this second year even more. I know that at some point in the future (assuming I keep my job and higher education doesn’t totally collapse, a possibility some of my colleagues would argue is more realistic than you might think), I will become disillusioned with the job, bitter at my administrators, and outright curmudgeonly. But I’m not there yet, and I still get excited before each class, anticipate the conversations I get to have with students, and simply look forward to going to work every day.
  • I bought a house. It’s small, it’s old, and it’s simple. In other words, it’s exactly what I wanted. When you buy a house in November in Texas, I feel as if you get a 6-month deferment until you actually have to deal with the challenges of owning a home; specifically, growing grass and rising temperatures. So far things have been smooth and stress-free, minus some ants in my kitchen and a front door that sticks. The biggest challenge of being a new homeowner is that this is my first time to live alone. That might be a surprising thing for a 30-year old to say; nevertheless, I’m just now learning what it is to literally be alone. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it yet, to be honest.
  • I met someone. We got engaged. I’m now married.
  • The Cowboys won a Divisional round playoff game and are playing in the NFC Championship game for the first time since I was a small child.
  • Donald Trump was elected president.
  • Unfortunately, the only of the last three statements that is true is the most frightening and seemingly-impossible of the three. And when you consider the other two, that’s a telling statement.

Anyone reading this blog (which now is probably no one, considering my long absence) doesn’t need updates about me, so I’ll stop there. I’d rather spend a few moments talking about books I’ve read and things I’ve watched on various screens. Rather than give detailed responses about each, I’ll instead provide two lists of memorable titles from the past year or so, in ascending order of quality. In other words, I’ll start with my least favorites and end with my favorites.  *This doesn’t mean that numbers 2, 3, and 4 are things I didn’t like; it just means that I didn’t like them as much as numbers 5-10. For example, I really, really liked Underground Railroad, The Nix, and Hell or High Water; but I liked 1Q84 and Moonlight much more.

Things I’ve read:

  1. Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
  2. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
  3. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman
  4. Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
  5. The Nix by Nathan Hill
  6. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (first time to read it)
  7. The Catcher in the Rye (first time since high school)
  8. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
  9. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (second reading–so amazingly good)
  10. The Sellout by Paul Beatty (this text stuck with me as much as any text ever has; what a reading experience)

Things I’ve seen on screens:

  1. Batman vs. Superman (so, so, so bad)
  2. Hail, Ceasar! (not as bad as it’s proximity to the title above may suggest, but towards the bottom for me in terms of Coen brothers films)
  3. Westworld (meh; so many better options out there for AI, alternative realities, Westerns, and HBO drama series)
  4. The Revenant (I have complete respect for the ridiculous effort it took for all involved for this film to turn out how it did, but I have no desire to ever see it again)
  5. Hell or High Water
  6. The Night Manager
  7. Love (Netflix series)
  8. Moonlight
  9. Manchester by the Sea
  10. It’s a Wonderful Life (I sat down last Christmas eve and watched the entire NBC broadcast, commercials and all, and I can honestly say that I had totally forgotten how perfect this movie is. I almost cried many, many times)

I think that pretty much sums up my last 14 months or so. Teaching, reading, homeowning, and watching. Lots of golf, too. And food.

Teaser titles for upcoming blog posts:

“Pet Peeves: Updated and Expanded”

“Places to Get Decent Beer and Unexpected Culture in Abilene, TX”

“My Case Against TruckNutz: A Manifesto”

“‘Why I Quit Social Media’ and other musings from an adult life lived in 21st century America”

“CDs that I’ve listened to at least 100 times”

“Why Dairy Queen is better than Braums: A Qualitative Study”


I’m sure you can’t wait.

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11 Years Later: Life as a Professor Begins

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. Not that anyone has been asking about it or wondering where my blogself has been. And I really haven’t even thought about it at all in the past few months. Instead I’ve been, well, figuring out the basics of what it means to be a college professor. So far I feel like I’ve somehow simultaneously learned tons and nothing at all. There are days when I feel as if I don’t belong, as if someone is going to walk into my office and finally reveal that they’ve called my bluff and that, in fact, I really am not a professor. There are days when I truly don’t know how I’m going to get all of the prep and grading done, or at least how I’m going to be able to do it in any sort of effective, responsible way. And there are days when I still feel like a student. I see groups of people that remind me of my friends when I was a student on this same campus, and my instinct is to walk over and join them in whatever conversation they are having about boring classes, lunch options, or weekend plans. And then I have to remind myself that I’m actually supposed to be teaching these students and that, rather than being another face in the classroom looking to the professor for learning, I’m actually the face that’s supposed to be providing the teaching. It’s crazy. But there are just as many days when the routine of classes, meetings, lunches, workshops, and office hours seems almost normal, as if this is simply the way my life has always been. And, really, I guess that’s pretty much true. Although the amount of time and pressure has increased, my normal duties and activities are the same as they were when I was a graduate students. Lots of reading, writing, and thinking on a daily basis.

Beyond all of the minor details, there’s one thing that the past three months have convinced me of: I’m extremely lucky to be doing what I’m doing. To have the chance to spend my days reading, writing, and thinking (like I said above) on a campus fundamentally based on the idea of community and relationships is something for which I am immensely grateful. Things happen on a small, liberal arts campus that don’t happen on other campuses, and I’m allowed–and even encouraged–to interact with my students on levels that simply aren’t possible other places. Is it perfect? No, it’s not. There are downsides to small campuses, and there are aspects of my own campus that are frustrating. But is it still an unbelievable opportunity for which I still get excited each day? No doubt.

I’m also learning that life away from the big city is particularly great for someone starting a new job like mine. Life in Abilene is smaller than life in Dallas. What I mean is that there are less things to take up time and energy. There are less people to see and interact with. Less miles and minutes to get somewhere. Less choices for places to eat. Some of these decreases are sad, such as now being hundreds of miles away from people that were so important to me for so long. This is an undeniable drawback to moving away from one place to another. But beyond the people, all I’ve really missed so far is Half Price Books and a few of my favorite DFW golf courses. But if missing these a bookstore and some golf courses means spending 90 minutes less per day in my car (and about 1/4 the amount of gasoline each month), then I think I’m okay with it. Amazingly that 90 minutes less per day in my car has actually ended up making my days feel so much longer. Even with a drastically increased work load in my new life, I’ve been able to find ample time to do something I wish I had done more in Dallas: read. I’ve read more novels in the past three months than I probably read in the past year combined, and I attribute this to the smaller life afforded by Abilene.

A list of books I’ve read since my move: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr; The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri; Purity by Jonathan Franzen; How to Be Alone (essays) and Further Away (essays) by Jonathan Franzen; Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle; The First Bad Man by Miranda July; Redeployment (stories) by Phil Klay; Self-Help (stories) by Lorrie Moore; Fortune Smiles (stories) by Adam Johnson; The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins; Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill; and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. This reading binge has been great for many reasons, one of which is the fact that I’ve actually been able to incorporate portions of some of these texts into an upcoming class I’m teaching in the spring.

Many of these books were great, including All the Light We Cannot See, Purity, and Fortune Smiles. I wasn’t particularly fond of July’s novel, although there were aspects of the text that I found really intriguing and insightful. I also wasn’t that impressed by The Girl on the Train–it felt like I was re-watching Gone Girl. But my favorite might be the one I read most recently: Everything I Never Told You.

I hate talking about plots of books because I sincerely don’t like it when people spoil my own reading of novels by giving things away in flippant 30-second summaries. But Ng’s novel negates this potential problem, because she basically deflates the main potential point of plot-based suspense with her two opening sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So rather than spend an entire novel creating a suspenseful journey leading ultimately to a climax, Ng’s novel unravels the story of Lydia’s family: her parents, her older brother Nath, and her younger sister Hannah. It’s a sometimes suspenseful but always gripping story about relationships, individual identity, ambition, failure, and loss. On a more general level, it’s a story about the nuances of familial relationships. It uncovers the ways in which seemingly mundane comments or facial expressions eventually transform into deeply-rooted bitterness, and how individual perceptions too often create ill-formed understandings of the people closest to us. It’s a quick and easy read, and now that I’ve finished it I’m amazed that Ng was able to pack so much emotion and raw coverage of interpersonal realities in such a short text. But I really enjoyed it, and while surface-level interpretations of the book will probably point towards its depiction of Asian American and biracial experiences, it ultimately is a book about how every person–regardless of race, gender, or background–deals with the constant tug-of-war between personal desire and societal expectation, and how this battle influences the individual psyche. My favorite line: “What made something precious? Losing it and finding it” (280). Ng has a direct bead on human emotion, and Everything I Never Told You will stick with me for awhile. It’s a book that makes you want to call the people you love and speak openly and honestly with them, and it simultaneously calls you to be open and honest with yourself.

– – – – – – – –

Other quick thoughts:

  1. The Martian (film) and Spectre were both big disappointments for me. As someone that read the former, Ridley Scott’s adaptation wasn’t horrible, but it failed to capture the magic of reading the book (i.e. the most common criticism of any adaptation ever). And the newest James Bond movie reminded me of the Pierce Brosnan era: horrible one-liners; overly-ridiculous sexual aspects; surface-level and stock characters (that weren’t there in Skyfall). I was really excited about Spectre, and when I walked out my reaction was similar to the one I had about The Dark Knight Rises: Make it one hour shorter and give me at least a little bit of dramatic substance that isn’t overwrought, and I would have loved it.
  2. Two TV series that I surprisingly loved: Catastrophe (Amazon) and Scrotal Recall (Netflix). On the surface neither of them are very promising (or publicized), and the latter might be the worst title of a show ever. But both series end up being quite heartfelt and, well, good. They also each only consist of around six 30-minute episodes, which makes them very easy to watch in a relatively short amount of time.
  3. KACU (ACU’s radio station) streams NPR all day long, and while I always listened to 91.7 in Dallas (the NPR music station), I was unfamiliar with the actual NPR broadcast. It’s fantastic. Fresh Air and All Things Considered are so good that I don’t know how I only just now started listening to them. And on the weekends, A Way with Words is my personal favorite. Yes, I get it: the English professor talking about how much he likes NPR is about as cliche as it gets. Oh well. In this category, I fit the cliche.

Now that the beginning madness of professor life has seemingly subsided, I hope to post more often. Until then, cheers to employment, colder weather, and the upcoming holiday season.

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Harper Lee in 2015

Unless you’re a reader of The New Yorker, it’s rare to see a news story or headline focused on something having to do with literature. If you don’t count instances in which books are banned or highly controversial, I personally can only think of two literary events making the uncommon ascension to popular news: 1) the publication of the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography in 2010, which came 100 years after his death; and 2) the publication last Tuesday (7/14/2015) of Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman.

US cover of Go Set a Watchman.jpg

It’s hard to think of an American text that is taught or read more than To Kill a Mockingbird, at least in the United States. As someone that has lots of friends that don’t normally read literature, Mockingbird is usually the one text that I can pretty much assume that everyone’s read. If a question about literature or writing or a certain literary device comes up in normal conversation (which, granted, is an amazingly rare thing to happen), it’s great to have Mockingbird to rely on as a source of characters and references that will actually resonate with most people. “Well, a foil is a character that basically stands as an opposite of another character. For instance, Mr. Ewell is a foil for Atticus, and his role as foil functions as a way for Lee to accentuate the positive aspects of Atticus’s character. Whenever we see the lack of dignity, decency, and goodness on behalf of Mr. Ewell, we are actually further reminded of just how decent and good Atticus really is.” But let’s be serious: it’s a large stretch that the literary use of the world “foil” would ever come up in a normal conversation. Still, the point remains: in this country, pretty much everyone has read To Kill a Mockingbird.

Not only has everyone read it, but Lee also pulled a pretty unheard of move after it was published: she never published anything else. Mockingbird won the Pulitzer, it was made into an Academy Award-winning movie, and–like I already said–pretty much every American kid between the ages of 10 and 14 began reading it basically as soon as it came out. And how do you follow up a book like that? You don’t. At least not for 50+ years. And, honestly, I don’t blame her. How could you possibly follow a book like that? It reminds me of J.K. Rowling following up the Harry Potter series: was there really any way for her to write a book that wouldn’t immediately be compared to HP and, in turn, be shred to pieces by critics and fans? When a text reaches such heights as those reached by Mockingbird, its author undoubtedly reaps all sorts of benefits and also consequences, including forever being compared to their previous masterpiece. Maybe Harper Lee found the loophole: you wait 55 years to publish something else.

Go Set a Watchman is a phenomenon for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the number of copies it’s already sold. The back story to its publication is fascinating in many ways. It was actually written before To Kill a Mockingbird, which is particularly interesting if you’ve read both texts and think about some of the overlaps–and major differences–in some of the characters. For me, the most phenomenal aspect of the text is the unique reading experience it allows considering the incredible things surrounding it, including the various things I’ve discussed above. I can’t remember another time when I’ve approached a text with such an unsure feeling of how exactly I was supposed to approach it. I had tried hard to not hear anything about the book before I read it, but I still knew bits and pieces going in. Most importantly: I had heard bits and pieces about Atticus being a racist, which has clearly been the central topic of conversation surrounding the book since its publication. But even beyond this, I was a bit hesitant about reading it. Did Harper Lee herself really even want the book published? I know the controversy about whether or not this was the case, and this was problematic for me. And, to be honest, my biggest concern had to do with the quality of the book itself. What if Watchman simply wasn’t any good? What if it casted doubt on the quality of Mockingbird?

Now that I’ve finished the book, I’m still a bit unsure of how I feel about it. Fortunately, some of my hesitations were proven wrong: I no longer am worried about the book being bad, and Watchman does not cast doubt on Lee’s skill as a writer or on the quality of Mockingbird. The story of Watchman is not nearly as engaging or intriguing as Mockingbird, and I must say that the book itself almost seems more like a classic dialogue rather than a novel. I use that term lightly, because I don’t mean that it reads necessarily like a conversation between two characters. Instead, I reference dialogues just because the book is so light on plot and, really, any sort of story. Instead, Watchman is a cultural critique and reflection in the form of a short novel. There are characters, and things do happen, but these are clearly secondary to the moral and ethical conflicts that Lee is trying to take head on. With this in mind, I’m not quite sure exactly how I felt about the book as a novel because, to be honest, now that I think about, hardly anything actually happens in the text.

I’m also unsure about how I feel about it in relation to Mockingbird. I don’t like the fact that I’ve compared the two texts, and I told myself that I would read Watchman as its own text rather than a sequel to the other. But it’s basically impossible to do that considering the fact that Scout Finch is the main character of both, that both of them take place in Maycomb, Alabama, and that so many of the characters from Mockingbird play important roles in Watchman, including Jem and Dill (in flashbacks), Calpurnia, and, of course, Atticus. I simply don’t see how it’s possible for someone that has read the first book (which, like I said above, is pretty much everyone) to not constantly think back to it as he or she reads Watchman. And the reason this is problematic for me is that the two books, just like their characters, are actually vastly different. On top of that, the world in which we now live is also much different from the one that existed 50+ years ago when the text was actually written.

And yes, we learn that Atticus is a racist. He is a bigot. The unflappably perfect man from Mockingbird turns into a somewhat typical old Southern man in Watchman, complete with rantings against the NAACP, the inferiority of black people, and a fundamental nostalgia for the traditions–both good and bad–of the South. The book is nothing more than the story of Scout’s realization that Atticus feels this way, along with basically everyone else in Maycomb. All of the people that helped raised her, all of the people that stand as beacons of the love she feels for Maycomb, end up representing this “separate-is-equal” view of race. Her father, her aunt, and even the man she planned on marrying. Theirs is a more typical form of racism: they don’t hate black people, and they don’t support lynchings or deny their humanity. Instead, black people are simply inferior, different, and separate–and that’s just the way it is.  The book depicts Scout’s realization of this, followed quickly by her disgust, and then a few long conversations with the people closest to her, most notably her father.

Watchman crystallizes and solidifies Lee’s views on racism and the South. In Mockingbird, racism and bigotry are just pieces of Scout’s coming-of-age story, and Atticus’s defense of Tom Robinson is secondary in relation to the overall story of a 10-year old growing up in Maycomb during the 1930s. But in Watchman, there is no Boo Radley or bildungsroman; the book is a pointed examination of racism in the South, and its focus is solely on uncovering the realities of the subtle, dangerous ways that this racism actually plays out in the hearts and minds of seemingly good-hearted people. Scout takes Atticus to task head-on, and the last 100 pages of the book produce some rather memorable scenes of Scout confronting Southern racist subtleties.

Watchman walks a dangerous line at the end, and Lee puts her reader in a troublesome spot. What are we to do whenever the people closest to us exemplify beliefs and tendencies that we see as morally reprehensible? To put is simply, what do we do if our sister, or aunt, or father is a bigot? For Lee, you still love them. You hug them, you eat meals with them, and you help them when they need help. And this is the difficult part, because as hard as it is, I think that Lee has the answer right. The only way to defeat bigotry is through love, or at least that how it seems to me. And by the end of Watchman, Scout’s only recourse is to keep loving her father. “I think I love you very much” are the last words Scout says to her father in the book, and it seems as if a certain level of peace has been reached between the two. But this scene isn’t as peaceful for the reader, at least not a reader in 2015. It’s not as easy to confront bigotry with love in our world, and doing so is something that we seem to rarely see. And, unfortunately, the racist tendencies that Lee investigates in Go Set a Watchman–a book set in 1950s Alabama–don’t seem to have changed much 55 years later. I’m not saying that lynchings and flat-out racism are still the norm, because they aren’t. But this isn’t the type of racism that Lee is looking at in the book. She’s looking at the more common types, and these are the ones that are still around. So the questions she raises in the text remain. What are the various ways in which racism takes residence in a person’s heart? How exactly do we, as a society, do the work of eradicating these various aspects of racism, especially when so many of them seem to be so deeply born into people’s subconscious? And how do we respond to these instances of racism? How do we, as a society, find some sort of peaceful outcome between all parties involved, in which individual agendas and preferences are secondary.

My favorite line in the book comes from Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother. He tells Scout, “Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” Will Watchman will be taught in schools? I don’t really know, and if it is, it definitely won’t reach the level of Mockingbird. It’s a much different book, and it’s really not even a book for young people. It’s a serious book that looks at serious things in our world. Would it have been published today if it hadn’t been written by Harper Lee in the 1950s? I seriously doubt it. But there are parts in there that threw me aback in terms of how applicable they still are today. And I can’t think of a more astute assessment of human nature’s ability of purposeful denial of present realities as the one made by Uncle Jack above. And it is here where I think Watchman gives us its most important lesson: rather than spending time acknowledging the mistakes we made in the past, perhaps we should be more focused on identifying the mistakes we are making right now. Maybe this is the way for us to “get along,” as Uncle Jack says. Lee was ahead of her time, and I for one am glad that Go Set a Watchman finally found its way to publication.

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