10 under-read novels

A list of 10 novels that everyone should read that no one ever really talks about.

Memoirs of Hadrian

  1. Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar. “I begin to discern the profile of my death.” So, certain extremely well-read people of my acquaintance (e.g., James) knew about Yourcenar, but I had never before heard a professor or fellow English major mention this French woman’s absolute genius. Her convincing embodiment of the Emperor Hadrian and her breathtakingly beautiful prose make this novel an essential member of the Western canon.
  2. The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles. Everyone should read Paul Bowles. Everyone! He’s like a darker, deeper, richer Hemingway, and this is a novel that will get into your head and refuse to get out. It’s unbearably creepy and wonderful.
  3. The Man Who Loved Children, Christina Stead. Jonathan Franzen, whom I love, despite the fact that most people don’t, has always mentioned this novel as one of his favorites, so I felt that I had to read it. This novel also appears on Francine Prose’s list of Books to Be Read Immediately. Stead, an Australian, wrote this strange and utterly engrossing novel about a large, savagely dysfunctional family in the 1940s, and it has unfairly faded into obscurity. Also ought to be read.
  4. The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki. I had the pleasure of reading this large novel while in Tokyo, and I fell in love with it. Tanizaki could resemble a Japanese Tolstoy, and there are moments of humanity, depth, and insight in this novel that aren’t to be missed.
  5. Appointment in Samarra, John O’Hara. When I was a teenager and beginning my foray in to “real” literature, my neighbor Dave, a gifted writer and author, told me I should read Appointment in Samarra and lent me his copy. I was suspicious, having never heard of it before, but this book blew me away, particularly because I’d never heard anyone else mention it before. It’s a forgotten American tragedy that deserves to be read. Moral of the story? Trust your talented neighbor’s recommendations.
  6. I, Claudius, Robert Graves. Reminiscent of Memoirs of Hadrian, this is another beautifully written book from the perspective of a Roman hero.
  7. Cousin Bette, Honore de Balzac. I adore Balzac! More people should adore Balzac! He’s certainly not forgotten, but perhaps his fame has faded? Unfairly so. No one writes about money and what it does to people like Balzac. Also loved Eugenie Grandet and Pere Goriot.
  8. Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy. Anna Karenina and War and Peace are, deservedly, on everyone’s lists of greatest novels, so much so that Tolstoy’s other brilliant books are easily ignored. Like Resurrection. I mean, whoa. Naturally, this book is mind-blowing, because it’s Tolstoy. This was his last major novel, and it includes remarkable reflections on justice, social mores, and redemption.
  9. Tinkers, Paul Harding. This is the most recent book on the list, and it won the Pulitzer in 2010, so it’s perhaps not forgotten or neglected, but I still don’t think many people read it (also, it gets shockingly low reviews on Goodreads, which rankles me). And that’s a shame, because this is a gorgeous little novel, defying convention and structure, about time, family, death, and the things that we leave behind. (It’s also the first novel that Guion has read in many years, and he loved it. So that’s a strong recommendation.)
  10. A Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert. Easily overshadowed by the masterpiece Madame Bovary, this novel is great in its own right and also should not be ignored. A classic bildungsroman!

Sentimental Education

Honorable Mentions

The Makioka Sisters

What neglected masterpieces would you add to the list?

And then some

“I am happier now than I think I have ever been,” I told Guion recently one night, as we were getting into bed.

Something I’ve been thinking about lately: I will probably only ever have dogs as pets, because dogs are perhaps the only animals who really want to be sharing their lives with humans. Cats could take us or leave us, and the rest of the lot (horses, rabbits, tarantulas, lizards, hamsters, parakeets, chinchillas, and so forth) would likely prefer not to share our company; they don’t revel in society of human beings. Dogs are perhaps entirely unique in this aspect.

I think a lot about animal well-being these days. And sometimes, even though we may love riding horses or wearing parrots on our shoulders, we are giving those animals a limited and frustrating existence by forcing them to live in the way we want them to. I love animals, and I want to collect them all, so this is a principle that is hard for me to accept. I’d love to have a veritable menagerie in my home, but in that instance, I am thinking only of myself and not of the animals.

What is the natural state of a parakeet? It is not in a cage in a living room. What is the natural state of a rabbit? In a den, in a meadow. What is the natural state of a betta fish? In a puddle in Thailand, not sitting in two cups of water on your kitchen table. What is the natural state of a lizard? Under a rock, in a sand dune, not in a glass terrarium. And yet, what is the natural state of a dog? In a house, connected to a human.

House cats are a secondary exception. Even though cats are not truly domesticated, many of them would not do well without human care and some seem to even like/tolerate people. I have no objection to people having cats, and I sometimes think I would like a cat, although perhaps for the wrong reasons (they strike me as excellent home decor; cats make every room look elegant).

That said, we might get chickens one day, but I don’t consider chickens to be pets, even though we will treat them with lovingkindness and not eat them. Chickens do not exist in the wild, so they, along with other livestock, are a notable exception to this rule (animals we have domesticated to suit our needs vs. animals we have turned into pets over time).

A strange thing to write or even think about, but it’s something that has been taking up space in my brain.

Gardening has become one of my chief pursuits — specifically, landscaping the front yard. (Guion has jurisdiction over the backyard, including the large vegetable garden.) My goal is to eradicate all of the grass and fill the entire space with plants. I want to spend every spare penny on plants. On Monday, we planted ferns, an obsidian heuchera, a young crape myrtle, and a full flat of pachysandra, to jumpstart my groundcover ambitions. (We also bought, in our overeager desire, allium and crocus bulbs, which will need to be planted in October.)

I consider myself an amateur, experimental gardener. The internet, along with vestiges of my mother’s advice, are the only reasons I know anything about plants. I do a little bit of research, and then I just go out and buy what appeals to me visually. Naturally, I’ve already made many errors, but my joy knows no bounds when plants succeed.

Questions and answers

Wednesday afternoon | Abby Farson Pratt

What is your favorite website?

Goodreads, by far. By far! Life would be a bleak, formless void without Goodreads. It is the only acceptable form of social media (besides Instagram).

What makes you happy these days?

Not being on Facebook. Not ever reading any online comments, ever. Ever, ever, ever. That might be my only life rule: Never Read the Comments. Also: Guion, clean floors, dogs when they are sweet, iris seedlings from a mystery friend, books, our church.

How can we stop the terrorists?

Stop talking about them on Facebook would be a start. That’s what they want you to do…

Why does your hair often look ratty?

This is the Lord’s business, apparently, as the Lord has not yet given me a solution. As my mother, from whom I received my hair type, likes to remind me, “This is just the way it’s going to be for us. Because of our hair, we have to dress like hippies. We will always look like hippies.”

What is your favorite food currently?

It’s a tie between avocadoes and watermelons, straight from the fridge. May summer never end!

Which dog do you love more?

It depends on the day and which one is barking like an idiot at the moment.

How do you decide what to read next?

I have a system that waxes and wanes between order and impulse. The order is that I stockpile all of the books I own but haven’t read in my nightstand cubbies, and then I judiciously select a new title once I’ve finished a book (I try not to read more than five books at a time). The impulse is that I comb over my Goodreads list and then pick a book that appeals to me at that moment and request it from the public library. I am also strongly affected by my constantly wavering obsessions. Right now, I’m reading a lot about zen and Christianity, but last month, it was French women novelists, and the month before that, Southerners. It’s hard to say what it will be next.

How’s that yoga thing working out for you?

I don’t know, decently? I didn’t practice in the morning much this past week, as sleep seemed so much more precious, but I sneaked in a few poses in the afternoons. The other night, Eden decided to turn my (expensive) yoga mat into rubber confetti and destroy my nice, leather-bound Book of Common Prayer, so I’m not sure whose side she’s on (Eastern meditation vs. Episcopalian meditation). Aside from that, I recently tried to do a sun salutation on the deck while the dogs were out there with me, and Eden pounced on my head (like, dog claws into skull). Eden and yoga do not mix. Pyrrha, however, adorably practices a very well-formed downward dog whenever I start to stretch. (Fine, I love Pyrrha more! I admit it!)

I was a very laid-back bride

On the morning of my wedding, I was lying in the hotel bed that I had shared the night before with my mother. Mom was getting ready in the bathroom. But I was still in bed, very absorbed in an episode of America’s Next Top Model. I have always been drawn by the novelty of freely accessible cable TV, a luxury perpetually unknown to me. After 15 minutes of inactivity, Mom looked at me and said, “Um, are you going to get out of bed and get married? Or just stay here and watch Tyra?”

Shyly venturing into yoga

Hood Ornament: 1948 (via Shorpy)

While recently enjoying a lovely weekend with my parents and sisters, I was struck again by my exclusion from the family way of fitness. My mom and sisters look like Athleta models. They are tall, toned, strong, and have impeccable posture. I am also tall, but I am weak and stiff. When I have joined them in yoga classes, I am the inflexible duckling, and they are perfect yoga swans. (Grace is particularly intimidating, as she is a licensed yoga instructor, and just about everyone looks like a toad next to her.) On Saturday morning, the three of them went to an intensive yoga class and cajoled me to join them, but I went with Dad and Dublin, the neighbor’s dog, to drop off stuff at the dump instead (because I will always choose dogs and dumps over fitness).

My sister the yoga instructor, practicing in Thailand. (c) Grace Farson.

My sister the yoga instructor, practicing in Thailand. (c) Grace Farson.

But I started thinking about yoga again. And feeling like I should try it, even though I am so intimidated and so weak. (I can’t even touch my toes, something I have always blamed on my extra-long legs, but which I now accept as a cop-out.) I asked my friend James, a yoga instructor in town, for advice, and he wrote such a forthright and gracious response that it nearly brought tears to my eyes.

Yoga appeals to me because it isn’t supposed to be aggressive or competitive — qualities which have always made me despise the American mentality toward exercise, weight loss, and gym culture. I am not trying to “get jacked,” lose 30 pounds, or strain my body to meet a cultural objective. Rather, I’d like to get to know my body better. To be strong. To be confident.

I have shyly started practicing yoga at home, and thanks to James’s advice, I have scouted some studios I’d like to visit for classes and instruction. I fully recognize that I’m at least 20 years late to the yoga bandwagon, but I hope it’s not too late for me on the whole, to gradually become flexible and strong.

Have you ventured into yoga? What have you found?

10 short story collections you have to read

Stop what you are doing and go read ALL of these short story collections. All of them! (These are the 10 best that I have ever read, with some honorable mentions below.)

The Collected Stories

  1. The Collected Stories, by Eudora Welty
  2. The Duel and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov
  3. The Complete Stories, by Flannery O’Connor
  4. The Stories of Paul Bowles, by Paul Bowles
  5. Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  6. Close Range, by Annie Proulx
  7. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
  8. The Marquise of O and Other Stories, by Heinrich von Kleist
  9. Runaway, by Alice Munro
  10. The Wonders of the Invisible World, by David Gates

The Wonders of the Invisible World

Honorable Mentions

  • The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
  • Drown, by Junot Diaz
  • The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Dubliners, by James Joyce
  • Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by Z.Z. Packer
  • Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, by Edith Pearlman
  • Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
  • Fools: Stories, by Joan Silber
  • Sleepwalker in a Fog, by Tatyana Tolstaya
  • First Love and Other Stories, by Ivan Turgenev
  • A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, by Virginia Woolf

A Haunted House and Other Short Stories

What are your favorite short story collections? What did I grievously leave off the lists?

Enjoying lately

Bluestocking Calligraphy

Bluestocking Calligraphy

More lists, less post-like posts…

Things I’ve Been Enjoying Lately

  • Improving my calligraphy website, by degrees. Next up: A new logo and some improved shoots of my portfolio and styles.
  • Accordingly, buying lots of new calligraphy supplies, to take myself and my little practice more seriously. Paper & Ink Arts is the best.
  • Cleaning out and organizing my studio; finding useful slips of pretty paper.
  • Dr. Martin’s Iridescent Copperplate Gold ink. It’s magic. No other gold ink even compares.
  • Reading! Always reading.
  • Looking out every morning at my Japanese maple seedling, a gift from Kyle.
  • Wearing pants, because the weather has been mild enough that they are comfortable again.
  • Our weeknight regimen of “salon,” in which we cannot watch TV but must instead walk the dogs, sit and read, play guitar, and/or discuss ideas. (TV is permissible on the weekends now. On the current docket: “The Wire” (just finished season 3), “The Leftovers,” and “Peep Show.”)
  • Monday nights with Maddy and Tara.
  • Plotting what I’m going to plant in the front yard this fall. Front yard goal: Entirely landscaped; no grass to speak of.
  • Eden’s new habit of leaning up against my chair while I read. She’s not begging for anything, just sitting with adorable closeness and cuddliness; it’s so unusual for her, and I love it.
Saturday lounging

The suspicious pup.

Also: I’m really looking forward to seeing the family women this weekend. Grace is finally back in America!

What have you been enjoying lately?

A summer update

Another bouquet from the front yard #wildflowers #flowerlove

Wildflowers from the front yard.

Apparently, I haven’t had much to say lately. There are dogs to be walked and books to be read and friends to be moved, near and far. After a run of house guests and weekend travel, I have relished our recent weekends at home — even if the last weekend meant relishing by way of contracting this horrible fever virus that is worming its way around town. I was in bed all day on Thursday, fantasizing my death, sending incoherent e-mails to family members, letting Pyrrha lick my limp fingers as she made her rounds around the house. She is a very sweet nursemaid. I was going to say that she had such concern in her eyes while I was laid up in bed, but I think she might always have concern in her eyes, burdened as she is by her myriad fears. My dear troubled dog.

Beauties

The girls.

Eden, on the other hand, was quite put out with my laziness. She is merciless toward the weak.

Lately, I have derived pleasure from:

  • Post-dinner walks with G. and the girls
  • The wildflowers in our front beds (an Easter gift from Mike and Windy)
  • The short stories of Paul Bowles and re-reading Pale Fire
  • Looking up words I don’t know in Pale Fire, only to discover that Nabokov made them up
  • A granite/Corian counter-top cleaner I made myself, thanks to the glories of Pinterest
  • New jewelry from Tara Montgomery’s fall line
  • Watermelon and peaches
  • Going to bed before 10
  • Teaching the dogs some (much needed) new behaviors
  • The resurrection of family e-mail chains
  • Not having any calligraphy jobs on the immediate/urgent docket
  • Guion’s new melodies
  • July days that top off around 81 degrees

You?

Human rights

A favorite recent anecdote, told to me by my coworker:

The topic of blood diamonds comes up when my coworker is home visiting her parents, who are very conservative, FOX News-abiding folk. Coworker tells her parents that our fellow coworker, P., recently said he’d never buy a future fiancee a diamond, because of the conflict regarding the precious stones and the fraught diamond trade in Africa. No one at the table knows much about blood diamonds, and so her mom says, “I don’t understand; what’s the problem?” Coworker says, “Well, it’s a human rights issue.” Mom’s eyes narrow, knowingly, and she says, “Ohh. I get it. So, he’s really liberal, huh?”

So! Score one for us, liberals! We have human rights on our side. Conservatives apparently don’t go in much for those.