Thursday, May 27, 2010


I've no idea if this is the conventional wisdom, or not, or if my theory will be dashed to pieces by the end of the book, but isn't John Singer a Christ figure, and the Greek friend he so loves (but is parted from) the Father?

Seems he fulfils a lot of criteria - in the South, but not of it, his uses and purposes are unclear to those around him, but they find him magnetic, and the four friends who visit him, well, perhaps they are different theologies, e.g. Mick longs for beauty, the Doctor for justice.

I dread a crucifixion in the offing. I almost don't want to listen to any more.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Above it all in the hot South

I wanted to write something about The Heart is a Lonely Hunter before it fades from mind...

You can tell that McCullers wants you to like John Singer, and I do. Every other character, every other situation in the book is uncomfortably earthy or grubby or a bit too kitchen-sink-realistic to be pleasant: Biff mashing the tip of his nose with his thumb, the drunk anarchist, the fat deaf Greek, the awkward teenage girl, the uptight doctor, etc. All those characters have their fine and memorable qualities, but you don't really want to get too near to them.

John Singer is a breath of fresh air. He's always cool. He doesn't have any odd personal habits (that McCullers mentions, anyway). He floats above the action -- even the sections that are narrated from his point of view are a bit distancing, a quality I found refreshing after the hot and sweaty intensity of everyone else. Perhaps this is because Singer is originally from the cool North, though I don't think that McCullers views the North as being a particularly admirable place. But Singer is set apart from the novel by more than just his disabilities. It's like he's stepped out of another book and another setting: Brideshead Revisited or The Remains of the Day or something by Henry James. He's a character from a different world, dropped into this Southern setting but still retaining his alien nature.

That's fine. I like Brideshead Revisited. But would a character like John Singer really inhabit a world like Carson McCullers has created?

Friday, May 14, 2010

While we're doing intermittant reviews...

I wanted to get down this quote from Mary Karr's "Lit." The exchange is between a nun with heavy glasses that magnify her eyes and skeptical convert, Ms Karr.

Let's eat a cookie and pray for each other's disordered attachments, she says. Mine involves pride and cookies.

Mine, I say, involves pride and good-looking men.

Together we bow our heads.


Dear Friends, as Fr. Satish, our friendly Indian priest, starts all of his homilies, I’ve done you a disservice. I just finished Castle on the Hill by Elizabeth Goudge, and I am sorry I didn’t choose it for this month’s read. It's a lovely little book.

Part of the reason I didn’t pick it is that I don’t want to make anyone buy a book she didn’t want to keep on her shelf, and though I’ve read a couple of Goudge’s other books, I’d never read this one. But I’m rethinking my original thought: It is worth reading again, and would be good to have around for older kids to read, too. I’m still going to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but I highly recommend the Goudge book, if you want to read something heartening.

The two books couldn’t be more different, although they were written only a couple years apart. Goudge is writing about England in the time of the blitz while it was going on. The story follows the disrupted lives of a musician, a housekeeper, two little girls, and three British gentlemen on the cusp of losing the gentile castle life they’ve been leading. The description of the English countryside where the castle is located is beautiful, effectively heightening the sense of impending loss. But even though you know that the world is about to come tumbling down around these characters, that death is everywhere, and that a couple of the characters are on the verge of hopelessness, the tone of the book is never hopeless.

In a way this book reminds me of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, being set at the same time, but the former is character driven, while reading Castle you become attached to the place and feel the painful loss of a culture, although all along you are reassured that life will continue to flourish (and of course you have 70 yrs of history in between). It also reminds me of Rumor Godden's writing. and, as with most female British writers, there’s the inevitable comparison to Jane Austen: Goudge includes a flighty girl who contrasts with the thoughtful female housekeeper, but Goudge’s women are not nearly as witty as Austen’s.

I wonder why Goudge hasn’t remained on many library shelves. I’ve liked her books better than Rumor Godden’s, except maybe Brede, which probably sustains Godden. Perhaps she’s overly sentimental for some people’s tastes. And she wraps up everything up a bit too neatly; what with the same characters running across each other’s paths without realizing it and intimations of ghosts, it’s almost a fantasy. But on the other hand, even though the story makes no extraordinary demands on the reader – Goudge makes sure you notice when a character realizes something and what it is he learns - there’s enough exposition to lose readers who only want to be entertained.
It’s too bad her books aren’t easier to find, because the three I’ve read have all been a treat. I'm going to type up a few of my favorite lines and post them on my blog sometime.

Meanwhile, I’m afraid that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter will be more of a downer. I started it the other day, and had a hard time getting interested in Mr. Singer or his drunk friend. I finally made it to the Mick section and find her more compelling. So we’ll see where this goes, although I’m skeptical that it have the happy ending of Goudge’s book.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Decisions, decisions

Unless someone has a strong opinion - and offers it - I've finally made a book choice. After reading a little into each book, I've decided to pick The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I'm still on my southern reading kick, and I have never read this one.  I'm about 100 pages into the Goudge book, and am thoroughly enjoying it, but it's not readily available at other libraries, and I don't know that it's a book that would stand up to repeated rereadings.  My Antonia was one of my favorite books in high school, and it's staying on my bedside table to reread, but I've had the McCullers a long time without reading it, so I either need to read it or pass it on. Plus it should read quickly!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Faulkner and then

I slowly made my way through Quentin’s story of Sutpen and finally finished last night - I couldn’t stay awake for more than 20 pages or so at a time. Every time there’s an interruption of Q’s narrative, I’m both irritated by Shreve and curious about Quentin’s frame of mind as he talks about his own father. Shreve with his pink skin and fascination with “the demon” is a bit offputting, but here am I, just like him, the northerner fascinated by the tale of southern moral morass: “Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”

Not that a northerner wouldn’t be equally as capable as Sutpen of such picking up and casting aside of human affection – is it affection? But Quentin seems to encourage Shreve to think that there is a difference – does Shreve’s reaction contain a sense of superiority or plain curiosity? “It’s something my people haven’t got. Or if we have got it, it all happened long ago across the water and so now there aint anything to look at every day to remind us of it. We don’t live among defeated grandfathers and freed slaves . . . a kind of vacuum filled with wraithlike and indomitable anger and pride and glory at and in happenings that occurred and ceased fifty years ago? A kind of entailed birthright father and son and father and son of never forgiving General Sherman’ . . . Quentin said ‘You cant understand it. You would have to be born there.’” (Modern Library ed. p377)

I don’t have a coherent comment to make, but here are some favorite quotes I marked:

Mr. Compson to Quentin:
”We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letteres without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whos living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant waiting, in this shadowy attenuations of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable … you bring them together again and again nothing happens: just the words, the symbols, the shapes themselves, shadowy inscrutable and serene, against that turgid background of a horrible and bloody mischancing of human affairs.” p. 103

And Judith giving her letter to Quentin’s grandmother: “Read it if you like or don’t read it if you like. Because you make so little impression, you see. You get born and you ty this and you don’t know why only you keep on trying it and you are born at the same time with a lot of other people, all mixed up with them, like trying to, having to, move your arms and legs with strings only the same strings are hitched to all the other arms and the others all trying and they don’t know why either except that the strings are all in one another’s way like five of six people all trying to make a rug on the same loom only each one wants to weave his own pattern into the rug . . . maybe if you could go to someone, the stranger the better, and give them something – a scrap of paper – something, anything, it not to mean anything in itself and them not even to read it or keep it, not even bother to throw it away or destroy it, at least it would be something just because it would have happened, be remembered even if only from passing from one hand to another, one mind to another, and it would be at least a scratch, something, something that might make a mark on something that Iwas once for the reaon that it can die someday, while the block of stone cant be is because it never can become was because it can’t ever die or perish…” p. 131

Here’s Miss Rosa: “Because there is something in the touch of flesh with flesh which abrogates, cuts sharp and straight across the devious intricate channels of decorous ordering, which enemies as well as lovers know because it makes them both: -- touch and touch of that which is the citadel of the central I-Am’s private own: not spirit, soul; the liquorish and ungirdled mind is anyone’s to take in any darkened hallway of this earthly tenetment. But let flesh touch with flesh, and watch the fall of all the eggshell shibboleth of caste and color too.” p 144

Judith again, in Quentin’s imagination: “I was wrong. I admit it. I believed that there were things which still mattered just because they had mattered once. But I was wrong. Nothing matters but breath, breathing, to know and to be alive.” p. 216

Did she really think that? Does Quentin believe it now but reject it in The Sound and the Fury? Or only wish it were true.

Mrs. Duffy reminded me that it is time to choose another book. And I can’t, so I’m calling for votes. Here’s my list: On my table I have from the library Elizabeth Goudge’s Castle on the Hill, which is not cheap from Amazon, and Alice Munro’s collection of short stories Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. I bought Chekhov’s The Horse Stealers, Carson McCullers The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Oscar Hijuelos’ Mr. Ives’ Christmas at the library sale shelf and haven’t read any one of those. Although it’s been slow going, I’ve been enjoying the richness of Faulkner and would be happy to stick with something classic – I told myself I was going to read another Dickens this year, and I’ve been wanting to reread My Antonia, which was one of my favorite books in high school. Death Comes for the Archbishop really has more religious themes, but I just reread it a couple years ago for another book club. And if we want to stick with southerners, another book I’ve been meaning to reread: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy

Then there are two books I’ve seen recommended multiple times: Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, (loved the movie) and Embers by Sandor Marai.

If we wanted something more overtly religious I’ve been wanting to read Edmund Campion by Evelyn Waugh and more Thomas Merton - there is a book of his letters to writers at our library – and available from Amazon for less than $5. Also, I’ve only read selections of Simone Weil and Edith Stein and would like to read more from them, but fear that I would have trouble reading anything heavier than a novel this month, which is always a busy one for us.

My top four are probably My Antonia, McCullers, and Percy and Chekhov.