Light in August

Genre: modernist, southern gothic, classic lit, american lit
Setting: rural Mississippi, 1930s
Pages: 507

There are some books that leave a distinct mark, and boy is this one of them. William Faulkner’s novel Light in August contains a cast of characters who collectively span the full spectrum of social outcasts. Anyone who loves brutally honest social commentary on American society should pick up this book and devour it.

The good: When I started reading this book I was not prepared for the emotional impact it would end up having. Despite how much I read, I somehow went into this novel knowing the bare minimum about Faulkner as a writer. The book maintains a startling amount of relevance regarding its treatment of racial tensions and crises of identity considering it was written around 85 years ago. Any novel that can continue to draw that kind of visceral emotional response 85 years down the line is an excellent piece of writing in my opinion. Each of the characters that the novel focuses on is marginalized in some way by the society they operate within. America is still a Puritanical society to a large extent so the story and the characters resonate deeply. I think that absolutely everyone should read this book and that is a very rare thing for me to say.

The bad: I have no real criticisms of this book, so for this review I am going to use this section as a warning to the reader. When you read Light in August, prepare to get uncomfortable. It is difficult to read about violence so bluntly described and stated. The casual observations of the lives of these characters seems almost voyeuristic, and there may be times where you wonder “What am I doing here?” I promise it will all come together for you. There are no heroes in this novel, only very real, very hurt people. And get ready for some heavy self-examination by the end. It isn’t going to be a book you can just read and then forget. You come out of reading this forced to face some ugly truths about society, or perhaps about yourself. If you like easy reading without any intellectual or emotional challenges, do not expect that here.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Genre: non-fiction, true crime, very Southern Gothic
Setting: Savannah, Georgia 1980s
Pages: 386

The true story of how the author took up part time residence in Savannah, Georgia shortly before one of his most esteemed new acquaintances in the neighborhood is charged with murder. Berendt traces the case and the lives of those involved in intimate and entertaining  detail.

The good: Damned enjoyable read. John Berendt sure knows how to spin a yarn (the work is nonfiction but for the sake of storytelling slight fabrications were obvious and permissible). He paints vivid pictures of both Savannah and its inhabitants. The players in this one are dramatic, bizarre, and fascinating. Berendt is an excellent writer which makes this book a very easy read for those of you who have a difficult time committing to a book long term (or picking one up to begin with).

The bad: Once again, this is a matter of personal taste. Although on the whole I found the anecdotes about the various characters entertaining and fresh, there were times I felt the story could have done without them. They were fine setting the scene in Part I, but once we really had a main character established in Jim Williams they started to drag the pace a little towards the end. For the most part I would only clip out little bits here and there, when the story was entertaining or important but had too much flourish. In particular, I found the scene with Chablis in the chapter “Black Minuet,” almost entirely unnecessary-useless to the story, contributing no character development, and at times painfully awkward.

Random Tidbit: As I was reading, the characterization of Jim Williams caused me to think of Kevin Spacey ( a la House of Cards). He just had flavors of Frank Underwood about him. I did a cursory google search to find out more about the crime and saw there was an IMDb page for a movie version of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Wouldn’t ya know it, Kevin Spacey was cast as Jim Williams! Which seems a little strange thinking about it now because the film was from 1997 and I can’t imagine Spacey playing a man in his 50s, over 20 years ago. Might have to give this one a watch.