For the past four years, I’ve kept a list of what I’ve read. I don’t have a list of what I plan to read, because I invariably swerve away from my preconceived notion of ‘What I Should Read’ for ‘Hey, This Looks Good,’ which pops up over the course of the year. I do however keep a list of books that I hope to one day read, the kind of books one might find in the canon, and try to pick my way through that when I’m uncertain where to go next.
One of my favorite books from this past year is from that list: Light in August. I somehow managed to go through both my undergraduate and graduate educations without once being assigned William Faulkner. Several years ago, I spent a summer trying to read Faulkner and Nabokov because…well, I’m not sure why I had that idea. It wasn’t a fun a summer. Anyway, I read several Faulkner novels with rigorous determination to understand and appreciate books that, for the most part, I found tedious. Why I picked up Light in August this year, I don’t know. It probably has as much to do with me being more mature than anything, but I was amazed by such a dark, stunning masterpiece of a novel. Set in Yoknapatawpha County in the 1930s, the novel is about race, sex, class, religion, and murder, told in a majestic, lyrical voice. This is the Faulkner readers rave about it, and I feel as if I have discovered it for the first time. I’d argue this is Faulkner’s best novel.
The other book I loved this year was a collection of poetry: The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka. This finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry is about Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion of the world. This collection is a polyphonic narrative — Jack Johnson, of course, but also his first wife, Etta Duryea, and two of his mistresses, Hattie McClay and Belle Schreiber. Jack Johnson’s fights, his training, his violence, his flash and glamour, his love of opera, all of it is on display. Unlike many poetry collections that feel like a loose “best of,” this is a collection far bigger than the greatness of the individual poems.
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