Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book Forty-One: The Heart is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Few things are more enjoyable than discovering a great book everyone else already knows about, but which you have passed over for years. Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been sitting on my bookshelf for a few years, and this reading project of mine prompted me to pull it down.

McCullers became an overnight literary sensation when she published this novel at age 23, prompting no less than Tennessee Williams to call her "the greatest prose writer that the South [has] produced," and Richard Wright being impressed by her ability "to rise above the pressures of her environment and embrace white and black humanity in one sweep of apprehension and tenderness." But the praise can go further. McCullers goes deep into the human condition and explores what we miss as well as what we know. Most impressive is her portrayal of a range of people and cultures without appearing stereotypical or sentimental. Published in 1940, the novel is set in the 1930s and includes some insightful comments on the integration of Jewish people along with the rise of Hitler as seen through the eyes of Americans.

The book centers around John Singer, a deaf mute who becomes many things to many people, namely because he serves as a reflection of the people speaking to him. Although he is the unifying character in the story, the narrative moves away from Singer to focus on other stories. There is Dr. Copeland, an intellectually driven African-American doctor with hopes of raising his race through the lens of Karl Marx. His daughter, Portia, is a servant in the Kelly house and also plays a significant role in the novel, although she does center around Singer. The Kelly's are an Irish-American family, large but poor, who rent out rooms, including to Singer. Mick Kelly is one of the daughters who is separated by her intelligence and love of classical music, although the family cannot afford any instruments or even a radio. Biff Brannon owns the local cafe/bar where the white characters meet up at times. Finally, there is Jake Blount, a hard drinking labor organizer who shows up in town alone and tries unsuccessfully to unite the workers.

Singer loses his best friend, another deaf mute, early in the book. While Singer is devoted to his friend, it is clear to the reader that his friend is annoying, lazy, and just plain fairly unlikable. When he is sent to an asylum to live, Singer takes a room in the Kelly house. A engraver at a jeweler's store, Singer takes his dinners in Brannon's cafe, where Blount finds a willing listener. Blount is so wrapped up in his own thinking that he talks with Singer several times before he realized that Singer is deaf and mute. Singer can read lips and learns to keep up with the different ways the characters have of talking to him.

Eventually Mick, Biff, Dr. Copeland, and Blount all find there way to Singer's simple room where they talk with him about whatever they want. Blount sees Singer as a supporter of his cause to unite workers, Copeland him finds him to be the only white man who understands the African-American condition, and Mick finds him to be the man she would like her father to be (this could be debated, but it is my current thought). Biff has less to project on Singer because his life lacks clear direction -- he is simply lonely. Singer becomes almost god-like in who people view him, but as McCullers shows us with Singer's initial relationship, he too projects himself onto others.

Of course, as the title indicates, this book is about loneliness. All the characters are looking for a connection to others, but can only find it in a man who offers them no feedback. In a short, but remarkable scene, all the characters find themselves in Singer's room at the same time and fall strangely silent. Singer cannot understand why this happens, but it is clear to the reader that the characters can only connect to someone they think is like them. They are not united in their own uniqueness, but  instead by their inability to reach out and connect with others. In some ways they have all been excluded by society, and in other ways they have separated themselves. 

As important as the theme of loneliness is that of communication, and they tie into one another. All the characters find communicating difficult, thus they are left alone. Singer cannot communicate with others so he is lonely. Copeland cannot communicate his desires for raising his race to his family or community and feels alone. Blount hears only derision for his labor demands, and is thus isolated. Biff loses his wife early on and has no one to communicate with even though he often thinks of what could be. Mick is separated from her family by her intelligence and love of music, although she is not even fully aware of how lonely she is. By communicating with Singer they all find a way to temporarily connect, but only because he serves as a sounding board.

There are many other themes to ponder in the book. Race relations, religion, facisim, and sexuality are just some of the other themes to be explored.  One of my personally favorite themes is a character as the reader, which I look at everytime a deaf and/or mute character (possibly representing the reader) appears.  That McCullers put this all together at the age of 23 is astounding since it shows someone who has been closely observing society for some time. But clearly she knew what she was aiming for. In an interview she remarked:

"I do believe that anybody who makes his own life is to be lonely, and I think this loneliness implies a condition of moral isolation." [From an interview with Hans de Vaal, Litterair Paspoort (April 1953)]
The phrase "moral isolation" is applied to this story quite a bit, and it is a loaded phrase. It implies not the isolation of physical space, but of a common connection. Few stories can be summed up in two words, but in this case, it works.

As for McCuller's herself, allow me to steal from her publisher: Carson McCullers was born Lula Carson Smith on February 19, 1917, in Columbus, Georgia. A promising pianist, McCullers enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York when she was seventeen, but lacking the money for tuition, she did not attend classes. Eventually she studied writing at New York University and Columbia University, which ultimately led to the publication of her first short story, "Wunderkind," in Story magazine. In 1937, Carson married fellow writer James Reeves McCullers. Less than three years later, when she was twenty-three, she published her first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. She went on to write Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Member of the Wedding, The Ballad of the Sad Café, and Clock Without Hands, among other works. The recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, McCullers also won awards for her Broadway stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding. Plagued by a series of strokes, attributed to a misdiagnosed and untreated case of childhood rheumatic fever, Carson McCullers died in Nyack, New York, at age fifty.

 Note on her photo: Melancholy is the best way to describe the images you see of McCullers (try a Google image search). But I chose a laughing picture, because anyone who is truly as sad as her pictures would have ended her own life quite early. 

If you want more on McCullers visit or Houghton Mifflin.
Up Next
I have two very busy weeks coming up with several night obligations and papers to grade. I'm looking at Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow, but may end up elsewhere. I also want to reread the The Scarlet Letter in the next few weeks since it was released around this time 160 years ago.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Forty: Peculiar Treasures--A Biblical Who's Who by Frederick Buechner

Nobody claims there's a chuckle on every page, but laughter's what the whole Bible is really about. -- Frederick Buechner

As a Christian I'm as dismayed as many at the lack of joy we sometimes find in our own faith. As a Catholic living in a Reformed Church of America community, I'm fully aware of the sinfulness of all of us. I was raised in a Protestant church (Methodist) which was light on sin, but far too serious for a growing boy. As a Catholic I found joy in the Mass, but cannot deny it was the seriousness of theology which attracted me to the Church. But seriously, we Christians need a good laugh now and then (with an emphasis on the now).

Frederick Buechner offers us that option without the guilt of slipping from the faith. I reviewed Buechner's The Storm two months ago, and this week I returned to Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who a book I read a couple of years ago and have given as a gift several times. Buechner is a Union Theological trained minister who studied theology after becoming a novelist. Peculiar Treasures shows a writer as comfortable with the ugly stories in the Bible as he is with the humor. This is a laugh-out-loud book which can make you reexamine your own faith at the same time.

Buechner takes on subjects big and small, and finds something worth celebrating everywhere. And he writes in a vernacular which pulls in the present as a way to explain the past. In discussing the prophet Elisha he chooses a story in which the prophet stops to get rest "when a boy scout troop broke ranks and surrounded him. They threw bottle caps at him and they made rude gestures...'Skin-head' and 'Chrome-Dome' and 'Curly' they called him till finally the old man had enough. He made a few passes at them, muttered a few words, and within seconds a couple of she-bears lumbered out from the trees...and mauled some of the slower members of the troop." Buechner notes that this "is not the most edifying story in the Old Testament" but says we realize that "the Lord does not call everyone to be Mister Rogers." He does not soften the tougher stories, but he sees in them something worth pondering. It may be that as novelist Buechner recognizes that there is more truth in the narrative than in fact. 

Biblical literalists are too focused on the "word," as opposed to John's "Word." The truth is not in the words, but in the stories and lessons they communicate to us. When I teach Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in class we talk a lot about this truth. O'Brien knows that a factual retelling of his time in Vietnam would simply be masquerading as the the truth. The truth is in the narrative, the story that reaches into us, grabs us, and forces us to look it in the face. Why else would Jesus tell stories? He knows that stories are what connect us and have a way of communicating the truth which is larger than the sum of the words. Buechner uses this as a way to imagine what some of the Biblical folks are thinking which may not be "factual," but are likely closer to the truth.
His discussions both of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene are touching in his focus. For Mary it is on how her son called her "woman" and seemed to have no time for her, until dying on the cross he gives another disciple to be her son -- the son she never had. Mary Magdalene is, of course, the person  Jesus chooses to first appear to after rising on Easter morning. When she goes back to the disciples who never really knew what to make of her, she tells them "I have seen the Lord" and Buechner says "whatever dark doubts they might have had on the subject earlier, one look at her face was enough to melt them all away like morning mist."

Much of Buechner's thought may be found in his summary of Sarah. He tells the story of how Sarah and Abraham laugh when the angel tells the old couple that Sarah is going to have a baby. Sarah laughs so hard she has to go in the tent so as to not insult the angel. But Buechner says they are not laughing at the message the angel carries. "The reason they laughed was that it suddenly dawned on them that the wildest dreams they'd ever had hadn't been half wild enough."

That is when laughter and joy become one.

Book 40B--I finally finished one of my bedtime reads, Walter Mosley's Six Easy Pieces. No lengthy review here. Mosley is almost always enjoyable and Easy Rawlins one of his best characters. This collection puts together six stories (and a 7th unrelated one) which were published one-by-one at the back of some reissues of Rawlins novels. A decent story, but because they appeared separately we get a lot of repeated information to set up the stories. The extra stories in the reissues was a ploy to get past readers to buy new editions -- hey, if it works, fine. But before putting them together they should have been edited to form one of Mosely's usually strong novels. If you have not read Mosley, start elsewhere.
Up Next
Well, I was going to read the John Marshall book, but that is going to take some time to get through. So I'll pick that off in smaller segments and as a whole focus this week on Caron McCullers' The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter. This is one of those classics always left unread on my list, so this week I read it! I'm also reading The Lightening Thief along with my 10-year-old; once we finish we'll go see the movie.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Book Thirty-Nine:The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith

Ali Smith's world is at times bleak and lonely, at times rich and full, but in all cases a different take on life than we usually see. Smith has garnered a strong following in her short career, and this new Anchor books edition of The First Person and Other Stories solidifies the fact that she is a voice we will continue to hear from. Whether this book will be the one recommended to new readers of her work is another question.

Smith plays with the short story form, at times unsuccessfully. Her opening story, "True Short Story," is what the title says -- a true short story. The narrator overhears two men, possibly father and son, discussing literature. Their thinking drives the narrator to talk to her literary friend, battling cancer, to discuss if the short story is truly a slim nymph as described by the younger of the two men. But the story sounds more like a memoir than a short story, which is ironic since the story is a celebration of the short story.

But when she succeeds Smith proves she is worth the patience. "The Child" features a foul-mouthed, talking baby who simply shows up in the narrator's shopping cart one day. Despite her resistance to what is perhaps things to come, she finds herself drawn into caring for the sexist, racist, angelic-looking child. But in the end she finds another way to solve her problem.

While "The Child" features resolution, Smith is comfortable not finishing the story. Many of the selections show us the modern "slice-of-life" snippets, but they are not without future direction. Smith differs from many contemporary writers in that some of the stories have hope built in them as well. In "The Second Person" we watch a couple fight their way into separation, but in the end an accordion and its missing mate indicate a renewal of the relationship.

The eponymous final story is a touching love story in which one of the characters works hard to convince herself that her new relationship is nothing special. Her lover is not discouraged.

"You're not the first person who ever made me feel like this, you know, I say.
I'm the first person today, though, you say."

The passage is indicative of Smith's thinking, a focus on living in the present. It also shows hers fondness for quoting her characters with "I say -- you say -- he said -- she said" phrases as opposed to direct quotes. At times it can be confusing on who is speaking, but Smith is likely intentional here. She also often leaves genders, especially in relationships, unspoken. How the reader interprets these stories may say as much about them as Smith.

Overall we see Smith experimenting with the short story form, and like most experiments there are both failures and successes. But like most experiments, they are worth the effort.

Up Next
Finally going to finish my reread of  Frederick Buechner's Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who which is one of the most humorous books I've read. This will be an easy read, which I need since I have stack of essays to grade this week and the possible start of a hefty volume of prose I agreed to review.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Book Thirty-Eight: Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

Perhaps I needed a reminder of "serious" literature. Perhaps my reading has become too easy. Perhaps I was feeling too much confidence in my supposed ability to decipher text. But my eldest son decided I needed to read Borges and brought "Ficciones" home from the library (an irony that Borges fans will enjoy). This rather unassuming 142-page book (the Everyman's edition -- not the edition pictured) holds plenty to challenge the more casual reader. For Borges, I think anyone who reads his work once is a casual reader, and this is where I fall.
Borges's collection of stories require and invite repeated readings, preferably in small doses. In my quest to read one book a week I did not have the luxury needed to appreciate this book, but I intend to own it soon and return to the stories one at a time. In fact, I find talking about this book a bit difficult.

There are many themes which arise over and over. Borges is clearly intrigued by materialism, in the sense of what (if anything) constitutes the material world. Time may belong to that material world (I'm not sure if this is his concept or my interpretation), but regardless the mutability of time is a focus in many of the stories. Then there is the recurring labyrinth, a stand in for life itself (Borges is clear about this), which reappears often and includes the hint of a straight lined labyrinth named in "Death and the Compass," one of my favorite stories. Finally, mirrors make appearances as reflections of reality or perhaps reality itself. Now take all of these elements, stir well, let simmer for a while, spread over six pages, and you have a Borges shorty story.

The stories vary greatly. Many appear as essays, but are in fact stories. Then Borges reaches into the detective genre on a couple of occasions, although these are not pulp fiction versions of his thought. These are mysteries of the mind and for Borges entire worlds can come out of the mind which are no less real than the one containing the thinker (if they themselves exist -- calling all Cartesians!).

Ficciones is split into two parts. I found the second part easier to delve into, but I'm guessing it has to do with my comfort level for Borges increasing. One of best stories, The Garden of Forking Paths, is also the name of the first part, so there is plenty in both sections to ponder. But I've decided to hold off on my thoughts until I have the time to read the stories again.

For those unfamiliar with Borges, allow me to present a short biography stolen from some site called "Great Writers, Suite 101." It was hard to find a short one since everyone likes to talk about him.

Jorge Luis Borges is the best known Argentinian writer of the 20th century. He is most remembered for writing short stories that explore the boundaries between what is real and what is fiction. His best collections include El hacedor and El libro de arena.He managed to inject humor despite using elaborate and complex mazes in his stories to dramatize difficulties of achieving knowledge and humankind's pursuit in unravelling life's mysteries.

Early life of Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges was born on August 24, 1899, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, into an established and wealthy family. He was educated in Buenos Aires, Geneva, and Switzerland, where his family lived for several years. He read widely in Spanish, French, German, Latin and English.

Borges the Young Poet
As a young man, aged 19, Borges lived in Spain and became involved with a group of radical young poets, avant-garde Ultraist literary group, who wanted to revolutionize Spanish poetry. After returning to Buenos Aires, aged 22, Borges became the center of a revival in Argentinian literature. He published his first poetry collection, Fervour of Buenos Aires, two years after his return. He continued publishing poems along with essays.

Seasoned Short-Story Writer
Borges turned his attention to writing short stories in the 1930s. His first important work in this genre was A Universal History of Infamy, published when he was 36. It is a collection of criminals' biographies. This mixture of reality (featuring real people) and fiction (characters he made up) became an important feature in his work.

Borges published his most famous stories in his 40s. Two of his best-known collections, The Aleph and Fictions, include tales about an infinite library and an infinitely small point in space from which the whole universe can be seen. Some of his stories from El Aleph also appeared in the collection of Labyrinths.

Later Years
Borges became director of the National Library in 1955. Later in life he slowly became blind and returned to writing poetry as well as short stories.

Final Years
Borges's last book Atlas was written with Maria Kodama, his companion, and with whom he married a month before he passed away. He died at the age of 86, June 14, 1986.

Sorry if I appear to be skipping out this week, but I would rather hold off until I feel like I know what I want to say. This book makes you think!

Next Up
Heading to another direction with a book I'm reviewing call The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith. 

Happy reading!