Quick Reviews, Part VI

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#93 Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison

I wonder what it’s like to be casually extraordinary. Like, to casually accept prestigious writing awards and casually boggle minds. I’ll have to ask Toni Morrison someday—if, that is, I don’t collapse at her feet in a fit of casual tears.

Song of Solomon was (necessarily) a letdown after Beloved, but not by much. The story centers on Macon “Milkman” Dead and his dysfunctional family. After his ex-lover and his best friend attempt to kill him, on separate occasions and for separate reasons, Milkman journeys to the land of his ancestors in Shalimar, Virginia. There he hears the legend of his grandfather, Solomon, who escaped slavery in the South by flying back to Africa.

A multi-perspective novel with a touch of magical realism, Song of Solomon (1977) fits nicely within Morrison’s rich literary legacy… without, in my mind, transcending it. That said, the gaping emotional wreckage of these characters, wandering astray on their search for an identity, is palpable in a way that only Morrison could render. Just two books in to her long list of publications, I can safely consider all of her work a must-read.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s not Morrison’s best work, IMHO, but she’s still way ahead of the competition by most measurements.

Favorite Quotes:

Milkman could hardly breathe. Hagar’s voice scooped up what little pieces of heart he had left to call his own. 

Macon kept telling me that the things we was scared of wasn’t real. What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?

Stop picking around the edges of the world. Take advantage, and if you can’t take advantage, take disadvantage. We live here. On this planet, in this nation, in this country right here. Nowhere else! We got a home in this rock, don’t you see! Nobody starving in my home; nobody crying in my home, and if I got a home you got one too! Grab it. Grab this land! Take it, hold it, my brothers, make it, my brothers, shake it, squeeze it, turn it, twist it, beat it, kick it, kiss it, whip it, stomp it, dig it, plow it, seed it, reap it, rent it, buy it, sell it, own it, build it, multiply it, and pass it on—can you hear me? Pass it on! 

Read: 2016


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#80 Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry

Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel—the last one he completed—depicts the final hours of Geoffrey Firmin’s alcohol-fueled life as a British consul in the shadow of two Mexican volcanoes. Full of literary references and allusions, Under the Volcano could serve as Exhibit A in my theory on Literary Incest (references within the classics to other classics). Lowry invokes, among others, Shakespeare, Dante, Baudelaire, and (especially) Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus.

For all that, though, Under the Volcano only appealed to me stylistically—not thematically. Consider this passage:

It was a hangover like a great dark ocean swell finally rolled up against a foundering steamer, by countless gales to windward that have long since blown themselves out.

And this one:

There was something in the wild strength of this landscape, once a battlefield, that seemed to be shouting at him, a presence born of that strength whose cry his whole being recognized as familiar, caught and threw back into the wind, some youthful password of courage and pride—the passionate, yet so nearly always hypocritical, affirmation of one’s soul perhaps, he thought, of the desire to be, to do, good, what was right. It was as though he were gazing now beyond this expanse of plains and beyond the volcanoes out to the wide rolling blue ocean itself, feeling it in his heart still, the boundless impatience, the immeasurable longing.

Ooh, and this one:

He watched the clouds: dark swift horses surging up the sky. A black storm breaking out of its season! That was what love was like, he thought; love which came too late.

Lovely, right? RIGHT?? Sigh. If only the plot were as compelling as the writing. The story failed, at the end of the day (pun intended!), to keep a steady grip on my attention. Far from sitting on the edge of my spectator’s seat, emotionally invested in Geoffrey’s war with himself, I found myself wandering away from the battlefield, bored with the tedium of it all.

Here’s hoping my own end is quicker, less painful, and less lonely than the Consul’s—and my life story a little more cheerful.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

There’s so much potential here. For me, though, this book ultimately falls short of Greatness.

Favorite Quotes:

I learn that the world goes round so I am waiting here for my house to pass by.

Good God, if our civilization were to sober up for a couple of days it’d die of remorse on the third.

What is man but a little soul holding up a corpse? 

Read: 2017


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#37 Nostromo, Joseph Conrad

If Future Me had told Past Me, before I read Nostromo, that it would encompass love, betrayal, political intrigue, rebellion, shipwreck, and buried treasure, Past Me would have been like, “Yeah, but Joseph Conrad wrote it. So it’s monumentally boring, right?”

For what it’s worth, Past Me would have been right. And Future Me was, indeed, monumentally bored. In broad strokes, Nostromo (1904) is a story of colonialism and revolution set in the (fictional) South American country of Costaguana. In finer detail, it’s the series of events that lead an “incorruptible” man to corruption. (Spoiler alert: Those events are “greed” and “vanity.”) (Spoiler alert: Duh.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “I’d rather have written Nostromo than any other novel.” Robert Penn Warren called it “one of the few mastering visions of our historical moment and our human lot.” Both of them, in my mind, could work on their self-esteem, because I liked The Great Gatsby and All the King’s Men infinitely better than Nostromo.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

I think I’ve said enough.

Favorite Quotes:

I suppose they are homesick. I suppose everybody must be always just a little homesick.

We have disturbed a good many snakes in that Paradise, Charley, haven’t we?

All the earth made by God is holy; but the sea, which knows nothing of kings and priests and tyrants, is the holiest of all.

Read: 2016


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#50 Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

For all its fame, acclaim, and longevity, Tom Jones (1749) didn’t leave much of an impression on me. Over eighteen books, we accompany the eponymous Tom Jones on his adventures and misadventures across the English countryside. Tom’s wild antics and eventual reformation made it hugely popular among 18th century readers, and the book remains influential even today.

Henry Fielding wrote much of himself into Tom Jones, from his unbridled personality to his political objections, and he remains a credit to the name of satire. Still, a (charmingly) cheeky narrator and an (occasionally) sparkling wit weren’t enough to rescue this book from my apathy. I may give it a reread someday, but only if my TBR is barren.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

I’m getting a little impatient with the chronic conflation of the world’s earliest novels with the world’s greatest novels. Tom Jones serves as a model for what came later, yes. But we’ve had a lot of time to practice and perfect the novel since.

Favorite Quotes:

It does not smell like a Christian.

For it is very uncommon, I believe, for men to ascribe the benefactions they receive to pure charity, when they can possibly impute them to any other motive.

Twelve times did the iron register of time beat on the sonorous bell-metal, summoning the ghosts to rise, and walk their nightly round. In plainer language, it was twelve o’clock.

Read: 2016


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#74 Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

If you’ve ever felt predestined to murder someone, and even justified in doing so, because murder is excusable for “higher” beings such as Napoleon, and ethics are just crutches for the weak—please, please rethink your value system. It’s possible you are actually a narcissist with a shoddy moral compass. Maybe.

Your name might also be Raskolnikov, and you might have been invented by Dostoyevsky. His ultra-famous Crime and Punishment (1866) serves as a profile in courage cowardice—a mug shot taken with a macro lens—of an angsty killer on the run. And by “on the run,” I mean wandering around acting transparently guilty, especially in his meetings with the local detective.

If character study is your thing, Crime and Punishment will probably be a page-turner. I can recall more expansive psychological portraits on The List, but never a more intensive one. We are tipped straight into Raskolnikov’s brain two days before he axe-murders a crooked pawnbroker and her half-sister, and don’t emerge from his foggy thought lanes until he’s doing time in a Siberian prison.

Note, if you will, that playing “And Then the Murders Began” would barely change a thing about this masterpiece…

…which, in my book, equals awesome.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time? 

I’m gonna have to go with YES.

Favorite Quotes:

Lying is man’s only privilege over all other organisms.

Suffering and pain are always obligatory for a broad consciousness and a deep heart. Truly great men, I think, must feel great sorrow in this world.

Just give yourself directly to life, without reasoning; don’t worry—it will carry you straight to shore and set you on your feet.

Read: 2016

This is the final installment in my Quick Reviews series! I’m sorry to have left so many “meh” books to the end, for your sake and mine. I’ll be sure to do things differently the next time I read and review The 100 Greatest Books of All Time (a.k.a. never, or at least not in this lifetime).

My last three reviews for The Challenge—Don Quixote, War and Peace, and Faust—will be up soon. In the meantime, happy reading!

90 Books! a.k.a. So Close Yet So Far! a.k.a. The Tears Are Real

90 books, y’all. I have staggered and stumbled my way through 90% of The (supposed) Greatest Books of All Time. I can practically taste the razzleberries on my Pie Party Victory Tour.

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Onward, soldiers! Come nightfall, we shall pie like there’s no tomorrow!

All the preceding milestones of The Challenge (50 books, 75 books, 80 books) suddenly seem trivial by comparison. Like, why did I bother celebrating at all? They were barely worth acknowledging. They were feeble, and weak, and nowhere near the pie.

But 90 is different. 90 is pie-adjacent. 90 is the final turn of the tide.

Now that the pie party is marching, inexorably, on the horizon, I’m beginning to gather up all my stray thoughts in honor of #100—the moment of triumph (and pie). I’ve already decided where my final battle(s) will be fought, for ruin or for glory (but, mostly, for pie). And, increasingly, my mind has turned to What Comes Next—which brave warriors among books will dare to follow The Challenge (and the pie).

Obviously, the classics will be shunned, Amish-style, from my Ikea nightstand for at least a year. I will make cool new friends like Funny Girl and A Visit from the Goon Squad, and catch up with old acquaintances like Harry Potter. My old bookshelf will mutter catty things under its breath about my new bookshelf, like how it’s obviously a trophy bookshelf and way too young for me. But my new bookshelf will be blissful in its ignorance of all things Faulkner, Hemingway, and Joyce—and if that’s not #winning, I don’t know what is.

Still, I have a feeling that the classics will reappear at some point—maybe stand in the rain outside my door with a bouquet of flowers burritos—if only to remind me we were good together, once. Sometimes, anyway. And I, weak-willed and forgiving and flattered and, let’s face it, hungry, will let my guard down long enough to usher them back inside.

This would seem, on the surface, to be a kind of betrayal of my own sanity—to read more classics further along my lifespan, I mean. But since my sanity and I officially parted ways somewhere around Tristram Shandy, it doesn’t really factor in. Instinct tells me, in fact, that I won’t even limit myself to new classics (that is, classics that didn’t make The List, e.g., A Tale of Two Cities). No, I’ll even consider revisiting a few I encountered back when my head was level.

Because one thing The Challenge has taught me is that liking a book doesn’t necessarily mean I want to take it camping with me every summer, or grab dinner whenever we’re both in town. Some books are like a one-night stand: You can walk away after one magnificent night, wish each other well, and hope you never cross paths again. (Because, well, AWKWARD, innit?)

And by that same token (but on the flip side), disliking a book doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll give it the ol’ snub until it finally takes the hint. I might call it up again someday, just to see how it’s doing. I might meet it for coffee to reminisce about old times. I might wonder how things might have been if we’d tried a little harder, been a little more patient—or if we’d met later in life, when the timing was right.

Remember the Love/Hate Game from my 75th book extravaganza? Well, it’s time, at #90, for a new game. Let’s call it Nuance. I will navigate the subtle differences between liking/disliking a classic and my willingness/unwillingness to reread it. And I will do it while drinking this bottle of wine that somehow found its way into my loving embrace.

This is going to be SO MUCH FUN, guys. But mostly for me, so… sorry.

Books I Loved—and Vow to Reread in This and All My Future Lives, Until the AI-pocalypse Comes to Annihilate Humankind:

Books I Liked—and Will Not Reread Unless I Get Kicked in the Head by Some Jerk of a Horse, Develop Amnesia, and Interpret My Goodreads Account As Anything Other Than a Cry for Help:

Books I Disliked—and Might Reread in a Deserted Island Scenario If the Only Other Surviving Book Is Miles to Go by Miley Cyrus: 

Books I Hated—and Would Not Reread Even If Chris Hemsworth Got Down on One Knee, Took Off His Shirt, and Begged Me To:

Take these recommendations (and warning signals) how you will. And as for the rest: Consider me neutral and/or undecided.

Actually, you know what? Don’t. Not quite yet, anyway. Because there’s one book that bears no nuance whatsoever. A book so atrocious it deserves its own platform of scorn and shame. A book I wouldn’t reread if it meant puncturing my own eyeballs out à la Oedipus Rex:

Rabbit, Run.

This is the book I would wish on my worst enemy (YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE, Your Royal Heinous, King of Human Garbage. YOU AND UPDIKE DESERVE EACH OTHER). I mean it—this book is unforgivable. There is just NO EXCUSE for this book, and I will ridicule it to an early death SO HELP ME GOD. And when it dies, I will light its funeral pyre MYSELF, stand atop its BLAZING CARCASS, and wait until our mingled ashes ECLIPSE THE WHOLE DAMN SKY.

Then, and only then, will I be satisfied with my life’s work, and move on to an afterlife of infinite Oreos.

So there you have it: the world of literary Nuance. Sometimes you give a book a second chance, even if it doesn’t deserve one. And sometimes you know, for one reason or many, that you are never, ever, ever getting back together.

90 books in, I’m starting to see the difference.

But, mostly, I’m starting to see the pie.

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90 books down, 10 to go. SHOW NO MERCY. TAKE NO PRISONERS. AND LEAVE NO PIE BEHIND.

75 Books! a.k.a. Three-Quarters! a.k.a. My Deathbed!

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Today is a good day. Today, I finished my 75th book on The List, which—if I remember how Math works—means I’m officially 3/4 of the way through The 100 Greatest Books Challenge.

Of course, these numbers are slightly misleading, since In Search of Lost Time, for all intents and purposes, is not actually one book but six. And, at over 1500 pages, Clarissa might as well be two novels—not to mention The Tale of Genji and The Count of Monte Cristo.

But still. Today is a day for celebration, so let’s pretend Math is our friend and invite him to the festivities.

At some point during this last year of fervent and wild-eyed reading, I started to wonder how I would measure the value of the Challenge. Measuring success is, of course, easy: Victory will be had when I can tick off the last book, raise my fists in the air, and shout to a surprised neighborhood that “I came, I read, I conquered.” Success is 100 books, plain and simple.

But my triumph will mean little if that’s all I get out of it—five minutes of bewildered and exhausted satisfaction before I move on to some other masochistic hobby. Relief never stays as long as the Distress that ushered it in, despite our warmest welcome. I’m aiming for a grander, more profound takeaway.

I’d settle, obviously, for enjoyment—for entertainment. If, at the end of all of this, I can say that I actively took pleasure in reading most of the works I’ve undertaken for this Challenge, it will all be worth it. The thing is, I’ve never actually sat down and counted.

To this end, I decided, on this Day of the 75th Book, that it’s time. It’s a good thing we invited Math after all.

There’s a game I play sometimes called “Love or Hate.” The rules are simple. All you have to do is choose one or the other—Love or Hate—based on a prompt (e.g., tofu, Taylor Swift, Florida).

There’s no sitting on the fence in this game; “Neutral” is not an option. The idea is to search your feelings—to decide once and for all which way you’d lean if the madman with a gun to your head really, really wanted to know your opinion on leggings-worn-as-pants.

Today, I will be playing “Love or Hate” with the 100 Greatest Books of All Time.

Well, OK, 75 of them, anyway (or so says Math).

The books I’ve read are in self-congratulatory bold. Here we go:

  1. Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes (L)
  2. Ulysses, James Joyce
  3. Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov (L)
  4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain (L)
  5. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (L)
  6. 1984, George Orwell (L)
  7. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
  8. In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust
  9. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy (L)
  10. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (L)
  11. The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (L)
  12. Middlemarch, George Eliot (L)
  13. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez (L)
  14. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner (H)
  15. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison (L)
  16. The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (L)
  17. To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf (L)
  18. On the Road, Jack Kerouac (L)
  19. Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (L)
  20. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck (H)
  21. Moby Dick, Herman Melville
  22. Beloved, Toni Morrison (L)
  23. The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James (L)
  24. The Iliad, Homer
  25. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner (H)
  26. A Passage to India, E.M. Forster (H)
  27. Native Son, Richard Wright
  28. Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf (L)
  29. The Odyssey, Homer (H)
  30. Catch-22, Joseph Heller (L)
  31. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce (H)
  32. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (L)
  33. The Trial, Franz Kafka (L)
  34. As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
  35. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (L)
  36. Emma, Jane Austen (L)
  37. Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
  38. Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe (H)
  39. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (L)
  40. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (H)
  41. The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien (H)
  42. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (H)
  43. The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri (L)
  44. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë (H)
  45. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (L)
  46. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren (L)
  47. Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell (L)
  48. The Age of Innocence, Edith Wharton (L)
  49. The Aeneid, Virgil (L)
  50. Tom Jones, Henry Fielding
  51. The Tin Drum, Günter Grass
  52. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray (L)
  53. The Call of the Wild, Jack London (L)
  54. The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford (L)
  55. Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett (H)
  56. Animal Farm, George Orwell (L)
  57. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley (L)
  58. Oedipus the King, Sophocles (L)
  59. Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
  60. U.S.A., John Dos Passos
  61. The Tale of Genji, Murasaki Shikibu (currently reading, currently loving)
  62. Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne (H)
  63. An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser
  64. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (L)
  65. The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (L)
  66. Clarissa, Samuel Richardson
  67. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (H)
  68. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (H)
  69. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (L)
  70. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe (L)
  71. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (L)
  72. Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence
  73. Finnegans Wake, James Joyce
  74. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  75. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh (L)
  76. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (L)
  77. Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence (H)
  78. The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann (H)
  79. Charlotte’s Web, E. B. White
  80. Under the Volcano, Malcolm Lowry
  81. Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan (H)
  82. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne (H)
  83. Hamlet, William Shakespeare (L)
  84. A Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway (H)
  85. The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (L)
  86. Light in August, William Faulkner (L)
  87. Rabbit, Run, John Updike (H)
  88. The Stranger, Albert Camus (L)
  89. Herzog, Saul Bellow (H)
  90. Go Tell It on the Mountain, James Baldwin (L)
  91. The Awakening, Kate Chopin (L)
  92. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess
  93. Song of Solomon, Toni Morrison
  94. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  95. King Lear, William Shakespeare (L)
  96. Dangerous Liaisons, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (L)
  97. Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Céline (L)
  98. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas (currently reading, currently loving)
  99. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (H)
  100. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie

Whew. That was brutal, if you could have peeked behind the curtain. Let the record show, though, that if forced, I will admit to liking a reasonable 52 out of 75 classics.

All is well until we hit Faulkner and Steinbeck, those sadistic sons of bitches, at #14 and #20. What did we ever do to them, right?*

From there, though, the love is touch-and-go. My most neutral feelings (and, therefore, the hardest decisions) were reserved for Forster’s A Passage to India, Homer’s The Odyssey, and Mann’s The Magic Mountain. And it would be a stretch to say I LOVED The Brothers Karamazov, Robinson Crusoe, or The Stranger, but I loved them more than I hated them. So I guess that qualifies as value in some microscopic form.

I’m starting to suspect that the ultimate value of The Challenge will be the opportunity (via this blog, and a busybody mouth) to share my thoughts and reading recommendations with others. And while I have a tendency to mock even those classics I loved (one of few victimless crimes, as far as I’m concerned, unless fans of Tolkien count), it’s good to know there’s plenty of staggering, transformative, extraordinary reading behind me—and, hopefully, ahead of me.

Since I celebrated 50 books in November of last year, savoring 75 books now means that my brain swallowed up 25 whole classics in the last 12 months (there’s that Math again; does he ever shut up?). I note this with more fatigue than pride. But all that reading has given me lots to contemplate, appreciate, and share. So before we sign off on this Day of #75, let’s look back at some of the best sentence inventions I’ve read all year:

From Catch-22 by Joseph Heller:

Appleby was a fair-haired boy from Iowa who believed in God, Motherhood and the American Way of Life, without ever thinking about any of them. 

From Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe:

There was a saying in Umuofia that as a man danced so the drums were beaten for him. Mr. Smith danced a furious step and so the drums went mad.

From A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway:

I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.

From Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh:

“Sometimes,” said Julia, “I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.”

From The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky: 

I am writing a curse, yet I adore you! I hear it in my heart. One string is left, and it sings.

From Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin:

As the years passed, she replied only: “I’m going away from here.” And it hung, this determination, like a heavy jewel between her breasts; it was written in fire on the dark sky of her mind.

From The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: 

I don’t want every one to like me; I should think less of myself if some people did.

From Light in August by William Faulkner:

Yet neither surrendered; worse: they would not let one another alone; he would not even go away. And they would stand for a while longer in the quiet dusk peopled, as though from their loins, by a myriad ghosts of dead sins and delights, looking at one another’s still and fading face, weary, spent, indomitable.

From King Lear by William Shakespeare:

But his flawed heart—
Alack, too weak the conflict to support—
’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief
Burst smilingly.

And, finally, from All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren:

The best luck always happens to people who don’t need it.

That’s all for today. Happy reading to you and yours! May you read ever, and much.

*This blog post was drafted before Faulkner worked his August magic on me. I still think he’s a sadistic son-of-a-bitch, though. So I left that part in.