Monday, March 31, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Spring break has started and I’m off work, so I finally buckled down and read something. I’m way behind on the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge (hosted by Books and Chocolate). I hadn’t even started. That meant the first book on my spring break list was The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Since this book has been on my shelf for more than ten years, it’s also a TBR-pile challenge book (hosted by Bookish). It is an amazing novel for a 23-year-old author to have produced. But what a depressing book.

The title is a hint. This is a book about lonely, alienated people. The main characters are Mister Singer, who is deaf and mute, and Mick Kelly, a teenage girl from a poor family who has big dreams but a tiny box of a reality. There is also an alcoholic itinerant worker who wants to be a labor organizer but no one will listen to him; that and his drinking have driven him sort of crazy, or it could be he is unbalanced to begin with. There is a restaurant/bar owner, whose relationship with his wife is pretty poor and then she dies. And there is a black doctor who is dying of tuberculosis. He has suffered all his life from watching his people suffer and wanting to help them, wanting them to help themselves, and watching them being beaten down by whites in the poor southern mill town they live in. He was merciless to his own children because his expectations for them were so high, and what they achieved was pretty much what was available to them, and he blamed them. His daughter, who is religious, seems the best-adjusted person in the book, but even she gets served up heartbreak after heartbreak.

Mister Singer had one good friend, another deaf mute, who went crazy and had to be sent to an asylum early in the story. After that, Mister Singer lives for the few days a year he can go to visit his friend. But the other characters in the story see Mr. Singer as some sort of empathetic sounding board. Because he can’t speak, they talk to him and pour out their troubles. He’s a very good listener. All these lonely people need that more than anything. But they all think he is something he is not.

Mick is a troubled girl who loves music and who wants to travel, to see the world. She wants to do something with her life. She has to care for her younger siblings, but she can compartmentalize those chores with the part of her life that is her own. Eventually, though, she has to help bring in money, which is pretty much the last gasp of her fading childhood. She is trapped and loses even the illusions of youth, even her hope.

The writing in the story is extraordinary. It’s impressive but sad that someone so young can represent such a wide range of depressing and hopeless situations. Some of the characters speeches did run on and on, but even that reflects how lonely alcoholic and mentally unstable people will run on. So while it makes for dull and repetitive reading at times, it’s realistic.

If you’re in the mood for fine writing, thoughtful character sketching, and depressing insight, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is worth reading. I’m just not sure it’s the best book to kick off a vacation.

Friday, March 21, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: A Good American by Alex George

A Good American by Alex George is a historical family saga that’s a bit different. I enjoyed it more than I can explain because, when I try to describe it, it sounds like I didn’t like it very much. But really, the sum of the book was much better than the parts of it sound when I try to break it down.

The book is narrated by James Meisenheimer, who is one of the third generation American Meisenheimers. The story starts with the immigrants, Jette and Frederick, who come to America from Germany in 1904. Jette and Frederick have a romantic backstory, but Jette’s mother does not approve of Frederick. Jette becomes pregnant and the two must flee. Jette decides on America. Although initially reluctant, Frederick soon takes charge, falling in love with his adopted country, the land of opportunity. They settle in to a small farming community in Missouri and the saga begins.

James marches us along his family tree, introducing us to his family members by telling us all the old stories, chronologically. He carries his family and the reader through World War I and then World War II. There are births, tragic deaths, weddings, more births, more deaths, etc. The Meisenheimer family grows and more or less prospers. They live their lives interacting with others in the community and being touched, to some degree, by the goings-on in the larger world.

The plot of the book is essentially a straight-forward narration of the lives of the various members of the family, from 1904 until just about the present. It’s a lot of years and a lot of people, so it’s necessarily pretty superficial. Also, everything is narrated by a grandson. So, even as he’s giving details about affairs of the heart or festering sibling rivalries, there is always an emotional detachment (discretion?) and a speed of delivery that kept me distant from the characters. James had the most indiscreet details to give about his own life, but his life was the least interesting.

I’m not sure what it was about A Good American that made it so hard to put down. I wasn’t emotionally invested in the characters. They each seemed to be a cog in the wheel, so James’s problems, which took center stage in the last portion of the book, didn’t seem any more important to me than Joseph’s problems in the middle of the book or Frederick’s problems at the beginning. Maybe that’s the point. Each generation has its own crises and lives through them and then dies.

I think there is just something in that "American Experience" mythology--that immigrant- experience, march-of-progress story--that takes one family, one very ordinary family, and follows it through time that is compelling if well-told. And this is well-told. They live pretty ordinary lives. They suffer pretty ordinary tragedies. And it makes for a surprisingly good read.

Monday, March 10, 2014


There are a great many historical novels that center around one war or another, for obvious reasons. Sometimes, if I read too many too close together, I get bogged down in the sameness of the awfulness (of war- not of the books). But other times, I read a book that manages to really move me, even though it retreads essentially the same paths and comes up with the same message.

I just finished Wake by Anna Hope, an extraordinary debut. The book is set in London in 1920 as the city is preparing to celebrate the two-year anniversary of Armistice Day. The celebration will include the burial of the Unknown Warrior. Scattered in short scenes throughout the novel are images of the exhuming of an anonymous corpse and its preparation for burial. The Unknown Warrior theme forms a framework for the novel that gives it more emotional heft. I’m surprised by how healing it felt (for me at the end of the book) to lay that unidentified but symbolic corpse to rest.

The novel takes place in the aftermath of the war, following three women for whom the war is not really over.

Evelyn lost her lover and she is unable to recover from the loss. She works in the government pensions office. Every day of her life is salt in the wound. Added onto that loss is that the one person she thought she could rely on, her younger brother, returned from the war changed. Though outwardly charming as ever to others, he is nastier to her. He drinks and parties too much. She doesn’t understand why he isn’t at all bothered by what has destroyed so many others.

Hettie is a young dance instructress at a jazz club. She yearns for freedom and a life of her own, but she has to help support her mother and her brother, who has come home from the war shell-shocked and unable to work. One night, dancing, she meets a handsome, wealthy stranger who seems to promise her the excitement and freedom she craves, but he, too, has been touched by the war.

Finally, there is Ada, who has lost her only son. She received only a brief letter from the war office informing her that Michael was dead, but nothing to indicate when, or how, or where his body was buried. For a long time, Ada couldn’t accept his death. Even now, she sees his ghost.

These women’s stories are beautifully told. In small flashes, some of the horror of World War I slips in, but this is more about the lingering afteraffects of the war. The losses were permanent. People had to learn to live with their loss. And in this affecting novel, time and support help these women to learn how it will be possible for them to live on.

Check out all the historical novels being read by participants of the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestries. There's still time to join up!

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Six Word Saturday is a weekly meme hosted by Show My Face. Want to play along? All that's necessary to participate is to describe your life (or something) in a phrase using just six words. For more information, try clicking here. Feel free to explain or not explain. Add an image, a video, a song, nothing.
Post your six words, then link back to Show My Face and hop around to visit other Six Word Saturdays!

My words this week are:


So I feel blessed this weekend. The snow has melted and I can see my driveway again. This shouldn't be such a big deal in Kentucky in March, but there you go. In a little while I'm going to take a walk to Starbucks. Life is good.

It's been a busy, busy couple of weeks. I've only read one book and that one is to review for the Historical Novels Review, so I've been slacking off on blogging. Two weeks ago, I took my daughter up to Toronto to look at the University. What an adventure! It was great to have some mother-daughter time, but it brings home even more acutely the awareness of how soon she'll be leaving home.

I'm not sure how much reading I'll get done this weekend. I'm a little bored with sitting on my couch under a blanket with my space heater running. I'm going to have to get outside. Can it finally be spring?