The image on the cover is Carson McCullers.
At my classics book club last night, one of the women had not had a chance to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (published 1940), but she came to hear the discussion about it nonetheless. She was not familiar with the book, and as we discussed it, she commented on how strange it all sounded.
“It sounds like it’s about a bunch of misfits that no one listens to,” she said.
We all concurred. And yet, such a summary does not do justice to the complexities that 23-year-old Carson McCullers captured in her debut novel, a small snapshot of life in a small Southern town in the Great Depression era.
“Snapshot” is the wrong word, however. McCullers herself was a musician (passing up her acceptance to Julliard for lack of money) and she dubbed her novel a “fugue.”
“Like a voice in a fugue, each one of the main characters is an entity in himself – but his personality takes on a new richness when contrasted and woven in with the other characters in the book.” (Quoted on the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt study guide)
Such is the set up of the book: four lonely people in a small town turn to the only man who seems to care about them, the deaf and mute John Singer. Ironically, this deaf-mute is the only one who “listens” to their concerns and stories. He can read lips, and he is able to speak (he was trained as a child) yet simply chooses not to respond in the conversations he has with the “lonely hunters” who visit him. He responds simply with a smile and a nod. Each chapter focuses on one of the “lonely hunters,” alternating among all of them, including the deaf-mute, who, despite his appearance as a confessor and friend for the others, is in actually the loneliest of them all.
I don’t often have the urge to seek out a young adult novel, but this month has been one of them. I’m pleased to say that I really enjoyed the two I chose. After deals with a teenage mother, and An Abundance of Katherines deals with a genius teenager dealing with yet another break up. Both novels felt original, and gave me, as an adult, a sense of satisfaction as I read them. After was by far the more emotional, and Katherines was most amusing. (more…)
Last year, I read The Stranger by Albert Camus (L’Étranger, published 1942, translated from French by Matthew Ward), and the book struck me as odd and a bit disturbing given the themes. Overwhelmingly, the story seemed to say that life is meaningless. I read it again this summer for my book club, and I think it’s a book improved upon rereading. I was also surprised by how much more I enjoyed it after discussing it with a group.
A similar change in my opinion of a book happened when I read The Metamorphosis (Die Verwandlung, published 1915, translated from German by Willa and Edwin Muir) for my September book group. Reading it myself, I felt like I just didn’t “get” it. It was rather disturbing: a man has changed in to a huge insect and the family locks him in his room, embarrassed. But once I started creating discussion questions and as I sat with my book group to discuss it, I felt the actual meaning of the story come in to focus. It’s a fascinating story given the right context.
Neither book is a favorite for me in retrospect. Each book is rather depressing. But I was reminded how important it is to discuss literature with others in order to better understand it. It reminds me that classics are worth reading, even if we don’t particularly enjoy the book. After a bit more work, a classic that at-first was confusing can be a rewarding read. (more…)
As I mentioned in my previous post, I loved Holden Caulfield when I first read The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. I was probably about 16 years old, which is Holden’s age. I read it again in college (20 years old) and I likewise enjoyed Holden’s story.
I didn’t love Holden on this third reading (age 28). In fact, as I read the first sentence, I groaned. Would I have to put up with this kid’s whining for another 214 pages? But in the end, I couldn’t hate Holden Caulfield, even after 215 pages of whining and complaining. His compassion redeemed him for me, and I’m so grateful I reread his story so I could experience it again from this perspective.
Mirth, noun: gladness or gaiety as shown by or accompanied with laughter
If you are looking for “mirth,” The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton is not the book for you. The House of Mirth is about a woman searching for happiness where true happiness will not to be found: through money and a life of materialism. While I did not enjoy reading The House of Mirth as much as I enjoyed reading Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, I did like Lily Bart and I sympathized with the frustrations she felt as a single woman in the repressed early 1900s New York City. (more…)