Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

1940. Houghton Mifflin. Paperback. 359 pages.

(Cover Image is from a different edition).

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

John Singer is a deaf and mute man who lives in a Southern town whose only friend, another deaf and mute man, is sent away by relatives to an institution after some trouble.

Singer moves to a boarding house and while he quietly goes about his life, longing for his friend’s company, he attracts the attention of several lost souls. There is the communist drifter; the black doctor whose ideas for the advancement of his people are rejected; the teenage girl whose passion for music is threatened by her family’s poverty; and the recently widowed cafe owner.

Review:

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter deserves more than the review I’m about to write. But some time has passed since I finished it, and I figure I better just get down what I can. McCullers’ book is quite remarkable for its clear-eyed view of the times in which she wrote. She was apparently only twenty-three when she wrote the novel, and yet is able to brilliantly capture a diverse array of characters.

That said, I liked some characters’ sections less than others.  Jake Blount, the communist and Dr. Benedict Copeland were interesting but they were also men ruled by their ideas, rendered angry and antisocial because of their commitment to their ideas. I was glad that McCullers showed Dr. Copeland’s interactions with his daughter and his other adult children, because that helped balance out the passages that consisted of Dr. Copeland’s ruminations.

But John Singer and the teenage girl, Mick, are characters to stick in my memory. The start of the book, which was solely the story of John Singer and his friend, was magnificent, almost like a fable somehow. Or it was kind of like the first ten minutes of Pixar’s “Up”, by which I mean, it’s the emotional origin of the character John Singer, the necessary foundation for the book. For although we will see John Singer interact with other characters, who John Singer is, really, all leads back the portrait of the relationship that we saw at the beginning of the book.

I loved that John Singer is not the deaf equivalent to the “magical Negro.” Although the others come to him with their problems, he doesn’t bestow upon them miraculous wisdom or become a mysterious conduit of self-understanding and personal growth. Even the widowed cafe owner perceives that the other individuals are projecting onto Singer the kind of listener they want, without knowing who Singer is at all. For Singer is quite private about his own sorrows and is bewildered by but relatively patient with his visitors. He is really a tragic figure of loneliness, even more so than all the other characters, especially in his visits to his friend in the institution.

Mick is such a splendid portrait of a teenage girl in all her complexity. She’s devoted most of all to music and savors every scrap of classical music she runs across. She tries on roles, such as being a party hostess for her classmates, and stumbles into sexuality with a boy from her neighborhood. She looks after her brothers, and in such capacity, witnesses a terrible accident with a gun, an accident that will indirectly seal her own fate.

McCullers’ writing captures these characters and also does well in evoking the shabby places where they reside – dilapidated carnivals, institutions, and rented rooms. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Excerpts of other reviews:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “McCullers has lent a voice for those who are forgotten, oppressed, rejected, and exploited. In narrating the struggles and enunciating their profound loneliness she has not only communicated their feelings but also gives them dignity.”

Fat Books & Thin Women – “This is one of those rare novels that, first, demands reading; and, second, is able to give us at one time the feel for a specific time in a specific place, and the feel of our country as a whole.”

Sycorax Pine – “It is tremendously easy to become immersed in this novel of infinite detail and flowering cynicism, just as it is very easy to become confused and offended by its politics (in my case, more by its less examined assumptions than by its explicit rhetoric).”

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Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk (DNF)

2004 (Translation copyright). Alfred A. Knopf. Hardcover. 384 pages.

Translated from the Turkish by Maureen Freely.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

Orhan Pamuk, author of Snow and My Name is Red, writes about the city where he’s lived his whole life: Istanbul. He tells anecdotes about his childhood, and also analyzes the works of other writers and artists who depicted Istanbul.

Review:

Although familiar with the name of Orhan Pamuk, I have not read any of his novels. I saw this book at my library and was intrigued by the book jacket’s description: “Blending reminiscence with history; family photographs with portraits of poets and pashas; art criticism, metaphysical musing, and, now and again, a fanciful tale . . .”.

I definitely loved all the photographs and pictures of Istanbul scattered throughout the book. I also liked the window into another life and culture that was provided by Pamuk’s more detailed stories of his childhood and life in Istanbul.

If – as happened once every forty years – my fat grandmother had to go outside or was invited out, the preparations would go on for days; until the last step, when my grandmother would shout for Kamer Hanim, the janitor’s wife, to come up and pull with all her strength on the strings of her corset. I would watch with my hair on end as the corseting progressed behind the screen – with much pushing and pulling and cries of “Easy, girl, easy!”

p. 119

In one chapter, he describes the relationship of Istanbullus to the Bosphorus and the various ship disasters that occur there.

When I told people I was writing about Istanbul, I was surprised at the longing in their voices when the conversation turned to those old Bosphorus disasters. Even as tears formed in their eyes, it was if they were recounting their happiest memories, and there even some who insisted that I include their favorites.

p. 214

Despite these interesting tidbits here and there, Pamuk spent a lot of time discussing a parade of authors (both Turkish and Western) who had Istanbul as their subject. I guess I hadn’t expected such a large chunk of literary criticism. It might have gone down better if I was familiar with the works discussed, or if I had some personal familiarity with Istanbul, but I wasn’t and I had not. Eventually, I realized that reading the book had become a chore with no sure reward at the finish, so I gave up reading at about page 250 or so.

Excerpts of other reviews:

Amy Reads – “It is brilliantly written, full of incredible pictures that show the scenery which he describes. I could see what he was describing and feel it. I felt like I was there, or had been there, or at least that I very much wanted to go there.”

Mirek’s Blog – “The best of this book is in showing the relation between our lives and the places we live in.”

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Crossing Washington Square by Joanne Rendell

2009. NAL Accent. Paperback. 310 pages.

From: Giveaway from Fizzy Thoughts

In a nutshell: Established professor, Diane Monroe and younger ‘rising star’ professor Rachel Grey, find themselves in a territorial battle, especially as they hold opposing views on the place of women’s fiction / chick lit in the pedagogical canon. Both of them are also in complicated romantic entanglements as well. Things come to a head when they both accompany a study abroad group to London.

Review: I entered to win this book in the giveaway because I worked in higher education (specifically student affairs) for several years. Although the book did give some shout-outs to academic commonplaces such as bored undergraduates, listservs and The Chronicle of Higher Education, I actually did not find much recognizable in the setting overall. I have never been a professor so that accounts for some of it.

But then, some of the professors’ decisions had me scratching my head. At one point Rachel becomes the faculty advisor to a graduate student, only a week before the student presents at a seminar. The hand-off is done in a most casual fashion. At least in the graduate programs I knew, a first year tenure-track professor would not be assigned as the faculty advisor to a doctoral student. Also it seemed very ill-advised to have the student switch advisors right before a major presentation. My reaction to this plot point certainly showed that my student affairs instincts are still alive and well!

But my credulity was stretched by other aspects of the novel too. Rachel Grey (deliberately written as a modern-day version of Marianne Dashwood) and Diana Monroe were not real to me as people. Their character development happened abruptly. Changes and epiphanies were laid out clearly and dully to the reader. Resolutions to the characters’ problems come about too neatly. The literary discussion central to the novel seemed lacking in real depth.

Most annoying of all, however, was the fact that both Rachel and Diana spent most of their time mulling over and obsessing about the men in their lives (both of them have exes, plus two additional men).

One part that I did appreciate was when a stranger listens to Rachel’s anxieties about her love life and her career, and the stranger points out that Rachel should not see herself as a failure, as she is a full-time professor at a respected university. I appreciated the nod to Rachel’s privilege. Rachel was extremely lucky to have snagged a job as a tenure-track literature professor. Most of her peers are probably either running the adjunct circuit or have given up on working in academia altogether.

Anyway, I finished it because I owned it, but I would have abandoned it otherwise. Others have liked it, so it might be it just wasn’t up my alley and also that I went in with my particular views on what academia is like. I still want to read a good fiction book from the perspective of administrators or professors in academia, but I think I want one that’s more messy, where the complicated issues of academia are not as glossed over, as I felt they were in Crossing Washington Square.

Excerpts of others’ reviews:

Devourer of Books – “Crossing Washington Square” deserves a great deal of the credit for my warming to ‘women’s fiction’ over the past year, between Rendell’s smart writing and the message she delivered about the value that can be found in books that book snobs tend to turn their noses up at.”

Fizzy Thoughts – “I think Rachel’s ideas and her passionate defense of popular literature is what saves this book and makes it worth reading.”

My Cozy Book Nook – “I think I was looking for more academic discussions of the “classics” vs “pop fiction” and perhaps more conflict within the academic arena; what this book delivers is more personal relationships — not just between these two female characters, but within each of their personal lives as well.”

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Castle Waiting Volumes I and II by Linda Medley

(Volume I) 2006. Fantagraphic Books. Hardcover. 472 pages.

(Volume II) 2010. Fantagraphic Books. Hardcover. 384 pages.

From: the public library

Recommendation from: Olduvai Reads

In a nutshell:

Castle Waiting starts with the story of Sleeping Beauty, but these two graphic novels are really about the motley group of characters who occupy the castle many years after Sleeping Beauty’s story is done. In the ‘present day’ narrative, the story is mainly domestic, telling of the amiable makeshift family that lives in the castle and how they get along. The main character, in a way, is a lady named Jain, who fled an unhappy situation while pregnant to eventually take refuge at the castle and give birth there. She quickly befriends the other inhabitants, which include capable Dinah and her slightly ‘simple’ adult son Simon, three elderly women who used to be Sleeping Beauty’s ladies-in-waiting, a talking horse, a taciturn blacksmith, the steward who is a talking stork, and a bearded nun. As a newcomer, Jain draws out the backstories of most of these characters.

Review:

The Castle Waiting books are cozy fantasy. Nothing extravagantly exciting happens at the castle, with most of the ‘action’ occurring in the characters’ backstories. In the first volume, for example, a big portion of the book is about Sister Peace’s past. As a girl who could grow a beard, she joined a circus and became friends with another bearded lady. They end up leaving the circus and discovering a religious order of bearded nuns, whose origin story is also told. At the time of reading the first volume, I wasn’t prepared for this long of a ‘sidetrack’ to the main story. I thought I’d be getting more of Jain’s story, which is kept quite mysterious. But I did enjoy Sister Peace’s stories.

I enjoyed Volume I but I was much fonder of Volume II. I felt there was more of a balance between life at the castle and the characters’ backstory diversions. Jain decides to move into a long unused part of the castle, and two guests help with checking for old traps and hidden passageways, to the delight of the younger residents. A magical trunk and a bowling game also figure into their activities.

For all that they are gentle and cozy, the books do refer several times to darker subjects such as a past war, the plague, and abuse. It makes the castle’s status as a refuge something that the reader can truly understand. Almost all of the characters have experienced loss of some kind.

A blurb from NPR on the back of Volume II lauds it for being “both women-centered and women-powered.” Particularly with Sister Peace’s story, this is true. I found the books’ approach to gender to be very refreshing not only in its approach to women but also to men. At one point, after looking after Jain’s baby, Simon wonders sadly to his mom why men can’t have babies, and she says she is sorry that is not the way God made things and comforts him. I’m pretty sure I saw the following thought in a review somewhere: by making home-life into the focal point, engaging the energy of both men and women, Medley subverts the expected connotation of home as female domain.

Just as the ‘action’ is mostly found in the backstories, so too is romance. The makeshift family in the castle are bound by the bonds of friendship, reinforced by their everyday tasks of creating a home together. Men and women relate to each other under terms that are platonic and familial, with requisite teasing and encouragement. This is also refreshing, expecially in fantasy. These are characters who are great company to the reader.

I have noted that there were four years between the first volume and the second, and can only hope that a third volume might be on its way and with slightly less of a gap. The story is definitely not done, with some intriguing threads left unresolved. There is some sort of ghost presence in the castle, for one, and also Jain’s backstory, while partially told in Volume II, is still far from complete.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Olduvai Reads (on Volume I) – “The 457 pages in this hardcover collection just fly by, and you emerge feeling like you’re part of the Castle Waiting family.”

Stella Matutina – “They face the same sorts of challenges that plague us all, and they get through them together. So some of them are anthropomorphic animals, or half-giants, or single parents to green babies. They’re people, first and foremost, and they have a wonderful family dynamic.”

things mean a lot – “Plus, Castle Waiting will delight fairy tale lovers with references to “Puss in Boots” and “Rumplestinskin” and other legends and myths that help create a truly magical atmosphere.”

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Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal, Graphic Novels