Embrace the Mystery: Easter & Flannery O’Connor

Flannery O’Connor, Prayer Journal ($18), Wise Blood ($15), Mystery & Manners ($16), and The Complete Short Stories ($18)

Futurebirds, “Sam Jones,” Hampton’s Lullaby

FullSizeRender_3

On Easter Sunday, this north Georgia Baptist sat in a New Orleans Catholic church thinking of Flannery O’Connor. I recently finished Mystery & Manners, O’Conner’s posthumous publication of essays and lectures about writing, religion, and peacocks. Mystery & Manners led me to several so-called “Southern gothic” short stories from The Complete Short Stories collection. So there I sat in St. Francis of Assisi’s stained glass-colored nave with a head full of Flannery O’Connor’s characters—murderers and grandmothers, a bigot barber, and a Bible salesman who ran off with a woman’s wooden leg after she seduced him, leaving her one-legged up a ladder in a barn’s second floor.

The priest’s sermon directed us to confront Easter confusion with Easter faith and, in full embrace, surrender ourselves to the mystery of life. The priest read from the Gospel of John, showing how Mary Magdalene walked in the dark before dawn and discovered that new life had risen from the tomb.

My wife and I recently read aloud O’Connor’s Prayer Journal, which she wrote when she was 21, away at college and drafting Wise Blood. It offers an intimate connection between reader and author because, in reading someone’s prayers, we recognize shared insecurities and fears. For example, O’Connor writes, “My mind is a most insecure thing, not to be depended on. It gives me scruples at one minute & leaves me lax the next.” She prays for divine strength to restrain her ego from eclipsing her view of God: “You are the slim crescent of a moon that I see and my self as the earth’s shadow that keeps me from seeing all the moon.” She prays for grace and for faith. She admits confusion and prays for Christian principles to “permeate” her writing.

I asked Joe DeSalvo (owner of Faulkner House Books) about the Prayer Journal and he responded that, “Any writer who wants to be a great writer must read Mystery & Manners.” I quickly appreciated Joe’s advice when in the first chapter, “The King of the Birds,” I underlined and reread a dark truth: “Necessity is the mother of several other things besides invention.” Her clarity of verse draws us closer to understanding the human condition.

In her essay, “The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South,” O’Connor discusses living with the teetotaler descendants of famous Methodist evangelist, Sam Jones. It reminded me of a song, “Sam Jones,” by Futurebirds, a critically acclaimed Athens, Georgia-based band. A full century after Sam Jones converted Tom Ryman, the riverboat casino and country music barroom owner, Futurebirds’ Sam Jones gives up on the mystery of life, scratches lottery tickets and waits to die.

O’Connor argues that Southern identity is found not at the surface of “mocking-birds and beaten biscuits [or] hookworm and bare feet,” but in the deepest “qualities that endure,” passed along generations of scripture-haunted people living in the balance of good and evil. Futurebirds’ Daniel Womack questions over a whining pedal steel guitar, “Sam Jones, are you liking what you see?” O’Connor may answer that the truth “is known only to God, but of those who look for it, none gets so close as the artist.”

O’Connor demands that artists and writers stare at everything possible to seek meaning worth extracting. She worries about her generation, which was groomed to eliminate mystery. She defends herself as a Christian writer because, having embraced the mystery of Christ’s resurrection, she is able to see other mysteries of life on earth.

During St. Francis’s Easter service, a little boy sat doodling in the pew behind us. At a quiet moment, he shouted to his mother, “I found the mystery!” In good manners, his mother shushed him.

O’Connor writes about people and their manners which, she argues, reveal to the reader—and writer—mysteries of the human condition. She claims that she did not know her Bible salesman would steal the woman’s wooden leg until five lines before he stole it. Like Mary Magdalene on the first Easter, O’Connor walks in the dark until she has discovered the story worth sharing.

Below is a sampling of her advice to writers about good writing.

–Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

On grace:

In my stories a reader will find that the devil accomplishes a good deal of groundwork that seems to be necessary before grace is effective…. There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment…. And frequently it is an action in which the devil has been the unwilling instrument of grace.

On good fiction:

A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you. In fiction two and two is always more than four.

On mystery and manners:

It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners, and mystery is a great embarrassment to the modern mind…. The mystery [Henry James] was talking about is the mystery of our position on earth, and the manners are those conventions which, in the hands of the artist, reveal that central mystery.

On the job of a writer:

The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.

On experience:

If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot. The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” (84)

On perception:

The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins.

On drawing:

Any discipline can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look. The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that doesn’t require his attention.

More on looking:

But there’s a certain grain of stupidity that the writer of fiction can hardly do without, and this is the quality of having to stare, of not getting the point at once. The longer you look at one object, the more of the world you see in it; and it’s well to remember that the serious fiction writer always writes about the whole world, no matter how limited his particular scene. For him, the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima affects life on the Oconee River, and there’s not anything he can do about it…. People without hope not only don’t write novels, but what is more the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything, because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have experience.

See also, generally, David Griffith’s Paris Review article, “Reading Flannery O’Connor in the age of Islamaphobia.”

 

Glowing with Memory and Meaning: Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk

h is for hawk

Helen MacDonald. H is for Hawk. Grove Press, 2014. 26.00.

All summer long a family of Mississippi Kites nested in a centuries-old Live Oak tree sprawling over shotgun houses across the corner of Octavia and Chestnut Streets. I noticed these sleek, soot-colored raptors soaring above me in the windy sky on Mother’s Day—never beating a wing—only slightly tilting their tails for direction. According to an Audubon Society field guide, adult Kites weigh about ten ounces spread across a three-foot wingspan. These silent hunters feed mostly on cicadas and flying insects, but also eat small rodents and birds.

Walking the dog this summer was much more interesting than usual because I was reading Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014), a tripartite story about the author’s love for her recently deceased father, for birds and nature, and for literature. MacDonald is a poet, historian, naturalist, and falconer. H Is for Hawk—a New York Times bestseller and winner of the UK’s Samuel Johnson Prize and Costa Book of the Year—displays her varied talents because it is not a simply a “birder” book. Rather, its many layers are inspirational for anyone familiar with grief and loss, or anyone ready for a change in life.

MacDonald is struggling to say goodbye to her father, a photographer, who taught her to find the memorable aspects of life’s otherwise mundane moments, and to savor them.

Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, arc-lit sky. How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again.

MacDonald describes the prehistoric reality that birds of prey are beautiful killers. She meets nature—in all its wildness—with her own emotions, blending the acts of training a Goshawk with the process of exorcising grief and depression:

They were things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths that lived and killed in woodland thickets. Falcons were the raptors I loved: sharp-winged, bullet-heavy birds with dark eyes and an extraordinary ease in the air. I rejoiced in their aerial verve, their friendliness, their breathtaking stoops from a thousand feet, wind tearing through their wings with the sound of ripping canvas.

MacDonald considers her Goshawk killing to eat while illuminating her acceptance of death:

How hearts do stop. A rabbit prostrate in a pile of leaves, clutched in eight gripping talons, the hawk mantling her wings over it, tail spread, eyes burning, nape-feathers raised in a tense and feral crouch…. The borders between life and death are somewhere in the taking of their meal…. Hunting makes you animal, but the death of an animal makes you human.

Throughout the book, she parallels T.H. White’s The Goshawk—and often his Arthurian novels, adapted into Disney’s The Sword in the Stone—as a modern balance to her experience training a Goshawk. White’s abusive youth and life as a closeted gay man led him to write about desolation, hunting, and the desire for freedom. To contextualize her modern falconry stories, MacDonald offers a cultural history of falconry to show these raptors’ permanence in our world. Hawks “conjure history,” for example:

For thousands of years hawks like her have been caught and trapped and brought into people’s houses. But unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It’s made them a powerful symbol of wildness in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be tamed…. The birds we fly today are identical to those of five thousand years ago. Civilizations rise and fall, but the hawks stay the same…. History collapses when you hold a hawk…

Her story motivated me to keep watching my Mississippi Kite neighbors soaring overhead. I would follow the Kites around the block, watching them float, turn, and dive each morning and evening until mid-September when they migrated from the neighborhood for warmer weather. MacDonald explains how learning about our environment helps us learn about ourselves:

What happened over the years of my expeditions as a child was a slow transformation of my landscape over time into what naturalists call a local patch, glowing with memory and meaning.

Since finishing H Is for Hawk, I have noticed more amazing birds in my New Orleans “local patch”: Bald Eagles, Osprey, Cooper’s Hawks, Quaker Parrots, Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Painted Buntings, and more. The often-mundane task of walking the dog now glows with memory and meaning. I have Helen MacDonald to thank for that, and I cannot forget H Is for Hawk—I can only recommend it.

– Alex B. Johnson, Faulkner House Books

Literary Events this Weekend!

This Saturday from 2-3pm at Faulkner House Books, we will be hosting the author Kevin Sessums, who will be signing his new book I Left it on the Mountain, which is the followup to his best-selling memoir Mississippi Sissy. Publisher’s Weekly writes of the book:

Sessums chronicles his career as a prominent celebrity writer for Vanity Fair, Interview, and Parade, rubbing elbows with Andy Warhol and interviewing Madonna and Courtney Love before falling into methamphetamine addiction. Interludes throughout the primary narrative detail Sessums’s love of extreme travel: he’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and walked the famed El Camino Santiago across Spain. However, his love of other extremes—in sex and drugs—seeps into his sparkling career.

Read the rest of the review here, and join us tomorrow to pick up a copy of the book and meet the author! As always, we’re at 624 Pirate’s Alley in the French Quarter.

And this Sunday, March 15, from 2-4:30pm, the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society will be co-sponsoring a celebration of the launch of Randy Fertel‘s new book, A Taste of Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation, at the Cabildo in Jackson Square. Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins says of the book,

A Taste for Chaos provides a sweeping view of the complex history of the notion of artistic spontaneity. Packed with erudition and references ranging from Lucretius to James Brown, and written with reader-friendly clarity, Fertel’s book is a lively examination of the centuries-old debate between the improvisers and the deliberators. This detailed labor of love deserves its place on any serious bookshelf devoted to literary study or the history of ideas.

Randy will give us his own take on improvisation, which he sees as at the very heart of literature. There will be wine, refreshments, and books available for sale. This is a free event, but please RSVP to faulkhouse@aol.com so we have enough wine for everyone!

Mardi Gras Literature

Just in time for Mardi Gras, we have some exciting rare books for you! If you are looking to enrich your Carnival with some collectible literature, come by Faulkner House and check these out.

faulkner house books-comus

The Mystick Krewe: Comus and his Kin. Perry Young. 1931. 1st ed. $775.00.

This out-of-print, exceedingly rare book is in great condition, and features color illustrations. Young’s book outlines the history of the Mistick Krewe of Comus, the Krewe that turned Mardi Gras into the celebration it is today.

faulkner house books-rex

Marched the Day God: A History of the Rex Organization. Errol Laborde. 1991. $150.00.

This is a rare first edition of an out of print history of the Krewe of Rex, “King of Carnival.” Rex, along with Zulu, is perhaps the most famous Mardi Gras Krewe. They were founded in 1871, and have been marching Mardi Gras day ever since. The highlight of the season is the Rex Ball, held across the street from the Comus Ball. At the end of the night, the two courts meet. To learn more about this uniquely New Orleanian secret society, come by to check out the book! (And if you are looking for something less collectible, we also have Laborde’s most recent book in stock, 2013’s Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival.)

Call us at 504-524-2940 or come by the shop to see or purchase any of these books! Happy Carnival!

Doing the Devil’s Work

faulkner house books loehfelm

Bill Loehfelm. Doing the Devil’s Work. Sarah Crichton Books, 2015. 26.00. Stop by Faulkner House Books or call us to purchase your copy!

Bill Loehfelm’s newest novel, Doing the Devil’s Work, the third in the Maureen Coughlin series, is both thrilling and gritty, a story you will want to devour in one sitting, but which will stay with you for days afterward. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, the book’s sense of place is created with hyper-realist precision. From an Audubon Park mansion to a Central City sidestreet to Coughlin’s own home in the Irish Channel, Loehfelm takes the reader on a tour of the city through the eyes of a cop who has recently moved here from Staten Island. Loehfelm includes a murder outside F&M’s, an interview at the Rose Nicaud, and a late night drinking at Ms. Mae’s, among other local markers. This book never lets you forget its setting, and locals and tourists alike will enjoy this gripping journey through what might be the closest thing to the real contemporary New Orleans ever portrayed in fiction.

In this installment of the series, Maureen has finished her police training and is finally a real New Orleans cop, but she is far from out of the woods. The department, and the city, is rife with corruption. They are understaffed, publicly disliked, and overworked, and these obstacles, as well as departmental politics and unwanted attention from the federal government after the 2013 consent decree, frustrate any neat solution to the murder mystery that begins with a dead body in an abandoned Central City home. Maureen finds herself torn between her instincts and a department that encourages her to stay out of it. And as an isolated murder quickly spirals into something much bigger, Maureen struggles to toe the line of police department ethics and politics while doing all she can to solve the crime.

Maureen herself is a character worth spending time with. She is both gutsy and empathetic, and her cop instincts are what drive this plot forward. Though she is no saint, Maureen is unphased by the social hierarchies of her newly adopted city, and her integrity is near unshakeable. As she says to her colleague, “The consent decree is going to change everything. That old-boy network stuff, that who-you-knew-in-high-school shit is going out the window.” Her New York attitude reflects the very real changes happening in a city that sometimes feels as if it being forcibly dragged into the twenty-first century, for better and for worse. And as a female protagonist, Maureen’s sharp tongue and tough attitude, not to mention her competence as a police officer, are nothing short of refreshing. Both her flaws and her virtues are realistic. Loehfelm is a master of characterization. He writes dialogue that is quick and witty, and from this dialogue spring dazzlingly realized characters.

From the police department, to the characters, to the city itself, this is a book in three dimensions: sparklingly real, never romanticized, never gratuitous. Doing the Devil’s Work is a highly satisfying read. My only regret is the wait for the sequel.

Calvino’s Cosmicomics

photoItalo Calvino. The Complete Cosmicomics. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. $24.00. Call (504) 524-2940 or visit us to purchase a copy!

This beautiful new edition of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics brings together all of the Cosmicomics for the first time in one place, including a few stories that have never before been translated into English. If you have never read these stories before, you are in for a treat: Calvino’s vision of a primordial universe as playground for his protagonist Qfwfq is transportative. We follow Qfwfq and his friends from the Big Bang through to the creation of life on earth and evolution. One of the most beautiful stories is the first, “The Distance of the Moon,” in which Qfwfq remembers when the moon passed so close to earth that he and his companions would take a boat out to the sea and climb a ladder to its surface. He tells us,

    On those nights the water was very calm, so silvery it looked like mercury,
    and the fish in it, violet-coloured, unable to resist the Moon’s attraction,   
    rose to the surface, all of them, and so did the octopuses and the saffron
    medusas. There was always a flight of tiny creatures–little crabs, squid, and
    even some weeds, light and filmy, and coral plants–that broke from the
    sea and ended up on the Moon, hanging down from that lime-white ceiling,
    or else they stayed in midair, a phosphorescent swarm we had to drive off,
    waving banana leaves at them.
  
Calvino’s prose is where poetry and science mingle, and these stories, collected for the first time in their entirety, tell not only of the creation of the universe, but of love and loss. These tales are richly imagined, and the stunning images of the early universe as envisioned by Calvino will stay with you for a long, long time.

The 2015 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Literary Competition!

Enter the annual Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society literary contest, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Competition! Cash prizes from $750-$7500, as well as publication, a gold medal, and free travel and accommodation to attend the 2015 Words & Music Festival in New Orleans! Categories include novel, short story, essay, novel in progress, novella, poetry, and short story by a high schooler. Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity! Postmarked entry form deadline is May 1, 2015. Complete details here. We can’t wait to read what you have for us this year!