Tuesday, July 19, 2016

John Gregory Brown

Born and raised in New Orleans, John Gregory Brown is the author of the novels Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery; The Wrecked, Blessed Body of Shelton Lafleur; and Audubon’s Watch. His new novel is A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.

Recently I asked the author about what he was reading. Brown's reply:
I spent the last nine months teaching at the prep school Deerfield Academy, most famous in literary circles for distinguished alumnus John McPhee’s The Headmaster, a wonderful biography of Frank L. Boyden, the tiny man and towering presence who helmed the school from 1902 to 1968. Although I’d spent more than two decades in academia at the college level, this was my first experience as a high school teacher, a responsibility that seemed weighty indeed: What works would I choose for my juniors in their one year of American Lit? I was tormented by having to leave so many great authors off the syllabus, by all the great works these young men and women might never encounter on their own. We dipped into Whitman and Dickinson, of course; we compared August Wilson’s Fences to Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman; we gave Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby its full due. We tackled stories by Alice Munro and Amy Hempel, by Raymond Carver and Ron Rash. But the five works I truly loved teaching – and that the students thus loved back – were these:

Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

For better or worse, young people these days know their way around despair. They know well how it crouches in the shadows of lives that appear to be fulfilling. And they’ve got a clear notion of what it might mean to find oneself constrained by circumstances one apparently chose of one’s own volition. Thus they see Edna Pontellier’s crisis as a familiar one, arising not just out of a society that narrowly defines who women should be but also out of a psyche that finds peace and quiet elusive, always just out of reach.

Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer

Reading The Moviegoer right after The Awakening tips you off that you shouldn’t fall for that friendly, conspiratorial wise-ass voice Binx Bolling adopts in his narration. He’s just as lost as Edna, just as beset by malaise and desire and a sickness in the soul, and my students scrambled for revelation in the novel’s denouement, when Binx announces that his search is done – or perhaps isn’t – and he sets his life on a different course.

Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City

I remain astonished by this debut collection of stories, published more than twenty years ago but so very poignant and compelling, offering a window into ordinary (and extraordinary) African American lives in Washington, D.C., a book that delivers what all great literature delivers – an unswerving path toward empathy no matter how unlike one’s own life might be from those recounted on the page.

Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter

Although the Harry Potter generation has encountered myriad forms of magic, a literary fabulist like Millhauser is still a revelation to them. In story after story he makes the world stranger and stranger and stranger until, well, it all becomes so very familiar and heartbreaking and real, a magic trick whose mechanical workings my students and I had a wonderful time trying to decipher.

Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home

Graphic novels and memoirs usually make me feel like an old man, as if the world of literature has headed off to explore regions I never knew even existed on the map, but Bechdel’s work is just so very smart and compelling, filled with delightful literary allusions and subtle narrative tricks and a heart so very large that it made my students and I absolutely giddy. They were not so giddy when I insisted that they look up every one of the memoir’s literary illusions – from Daedalus and Icarus to Proust and Camus – but they wound up persuaded that doing so did indeed enrich their understanding, a song made more beautiful by other voices singing in harmony.
Visit John Gregory Brown's website.

--Marshal Zeringue