The Book Trail: From McCullers to Manning

I am beginning this edition of The Book Trail with a novel written by one of my favourite authors, Carson McCullers.  As ever, I have used the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.  A couple are books which I have already read, and others are ones which are slowly creeping up my vast to-read list.


1. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers 6577412
‘Twelve-year-old Frankie Adams, longing at once for escape and belonging, takes her role as “member of the wedding” to mean that when her older brother marries she will join the happy couple in their new life together. But Frankie is unlucky in love; her mother is dead, and Frankie narrowly escapes being raped by a drunken soldier during a farewell tour of the town. Worst of all, “member of the wedding” doesn’t mean what she thinks. A gorgeous, brief coming-of-age novel.’


2. Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty
‘Set on the Mississippi Delta in 1923, this story captures the mind and manners of the Fairchilds, a large aristocratic family, self-contained and elusive as the wind. The vagaries of the Fairchilds are keenly observed, and sometimes harshly judged, by nine-year-old Laura McRaven, a Fairchild cousin who takes The Yellow Dog train to the Delta for Dabney Fairchild’s wedding. An only child whose mother has just died, Laura is resentful of her boisterous, careless cousins, and desperate for their acceptance. As the hour moves closer and closer to wedding day, Laura arrives at a more subtle understanding of both the Fairchilds and herself.’


5268723. North Towards Home by Willie Morris
‘With his signature style and grace, Willie Morris, arguably one of this country’s finest Southern writers, presents us with an unparalleled memoir of a country in transition and a boy coming of age in a period of tumultuous cultural, social, and political change.   In North Toward Home, Morris vividly recalls the South of his childhood with all of its cruelty, grace, and foibles intact.  He chronicles desegregation and the rise of Lyndon Johnson in Texas in the 50s and 60s, and New York in the 1960s, where he became the controversial editor of Harper‘s magazine.  North Toward Home is the perceptive story of the education of an observant and intelligent young man, and a gifted writer’s keen observations of a country in transition. It is, as Walker Percy wrote, “a touching, deeply felt and memorable account of one man’s pilgrimage.”‘


4. The Voice at the Back Door by Elizabeth Spencer
‘In the mid-1950s, the town of Lacey in the Mississippi hill country is a place where the lives of blacks and whites, though seemingly separate, are in fact historically and inevitably intertwined. When Lacey’s fair-haired boy, Duncan Harper, is appointed interim sheriff, he makes public his private convictions about the equality of blacks before the law, and the combined threat and promise he represents to the understood order of things in Lacey affects almost every member of the community. In the end, Harper succeeds in pointing the way for individuals, both black and white, to find a more harmonious coexistence, but at a sacrifice all must come to regret. In The Voice at the Back Door, Mississippi native Elizabeth Spencer gives form to the many voices that shaped her view of race relations while growing up, and at the same time discovers her own voice – one of hope. Employing her extraordinary literary powers – finely honed narrative techniques, insight into a rich, diverse cast of characters, and an unerring ear for dialect – Spencer makes palpable the psychological milieu of a small southern town hobbled by tradition but lurching toward the dawn of the civil rights movement. First published in 1956, The Voice at the Back Door is Spencer’s most highly praised novel yet, and her last to treat small-town life in Mississippi.’


5. Dreams of Sleep by Josephine Humphreys 897991
‘Alice Reese knows that the cheerful sounds of her family eating breakfast mask a ten–year marriage falling apart. As Alice and her husband, Will, struggle to understand–and perhaps recapture–the feelings that drew them together in the first place, their interior lives are sensitively and convincingly explored.’


6. Household Words by Joan Silber
‘The year is 1940, and Rhoda Taber is pregnant with her first child. Satisfied with her comfortable house in a New Jersey suburb and her reliable husband, Leonard, she expects that her life will be predictable and secure. Surprised by an untimely death, an unexpected illness, and the contrary natures of her two daughters, Rhoda finds that fate undermines her sense of entitlement and security. Shrewd, wry, and sometimes bitter, Rhoda reveals herself to be a wonderfully flawed and achingly real woman caught up in the unexpectedness of her own life.’


4397317. A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
‘The hero of Darcy O’Brien’s A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a child of Hollywood, and once his life was a glittery dream. His father starred in Westerns. His mother was a goddess of the silver screen. The family enjoyed the high life on their estate, Casa Fiesta. But his parents’ careers have crashed since then, and their marriage has broken up too.  Lovesick and sex-crazed, the mother sets out on an intercontinental quest for the right—or wrong—man, while her mild-mannered but manipulative former husband clings to his memories in California. And their teenage son? How he struggles both to keep faith with his family and to get by himself, and what in the end he must do to break free, makes for a classic coming-of-age story—a novel that combines keen insight and devastating wit to hilarious and heartbreaking effect.’


8. School for Love by Olivia Manning
‘Jerusalem in 1945 is a city in flux: refugees from the war in Europe fill its streets and cafés, the British colonial mandate is coming to an end, and tensions are on the rise between the Arab and Jewish populations. Felix Latimer, a recently orphaned teenager, arrives in Jerusalem from Baghdad, biding time until he can secure passage to England. Adrift and deeply lonely, Felix has no choice but to room in a boardinghouse run by Miss Bohun, a relative he has never met. Miss Bohun is a holy terror, a cheerless miser who proclaims the ideals of a fundamentalist group known as the Ever-Readies—joy, charity, and love—even as she makes life a misery for her boarders. Then Mrs. Ellis, a fascinating young widow, moves into the house and disrupts its dreary routine for good.  Olivia Manning’s great subject is the lives of ordinary people caught up in history. Here, as in her panoramic depiction of World War II, The Balkan Trilogy, she offers a rich and psychologically nuanced story of life on the precipice, and she tells it with equal parts compassion, skepticism, and humour.’



Have you read any of these books?

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Penguin Moderns: Carson McCullers and Jorge Luis Borges

The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers ***** (#45) 9780241339503
The forty-fifth publication on the Penguin Moderns list is one which I was particularly looking forward to – The Haunted Boy by Carson McCullers.  Whilst a huge fan of her fiction, and of the Southern Gothic genre in which she wrote, I have only read a handful of her short stories to date.  The blurb states that ‘these moving stories portray love, sorrow and our search for happiness and understanding.’  All of the tales here – ‘The Haunted Boy’, ‘The Sojourner’, and ‘A Domestic Dilemma’ – were published between 1950 and 1955.

As with her longer works, McCullers’ writing is fantastic – multilayered, perceptive, and admirable.  She captures moods particularly so well in the first story, ‘The Haunted Boy’: ‘It was then, in the unanswering silence as they stood in the empty, wax-floored hall, that Hugh felt there was something wrong’.  McCullers also marvellously explores her characters and their psyches.  From the same story, she writes of young protagonist Hugh: ‘Confession, the first deep-rooted words, opened the festered secrecy of the boy’s heart, and he continued more rapidly, urgent and finding unforeseen relief.’

McCullers also fantastically captures the essence of memory; from ‘The Sojourner’, for instance: ‘The twilight border between sleep and waking was a Roman one this morning, splashing fountains and arched, narrow streets, the golden lavish city of blossoms and age-soft stone.  Sometimes in this semi-consciousness he sojourned again in Paris, or war German rubble, or Swiss ski-ing and a snow hotel.  Sometimes, also, in a fallow Georgia field at hunting dawn.  Rome it was this morning in the fearless region of dreams.’

McCullers writes of some very dark topics in this selection of her work, and contrasts this darkness with a series of glorious descriptions.  Her character portraits are always sharp and varied.  All three stories here are rich, thoughtful, and searching, and I enjoyed every single word of them.  I am very excited to read the rest of McCullers’ short work at some point very soon.


9780241339053The Garden of Forking Paths by Jorge Luis Borges ** (#46)
I do not think I had ever read any of Argentinian author Borges’ work before picking up the forty-sixth Penguin Modern, The Garden of Forking Paths.  I was not entirely sure, from other reviews which I have seen of various pieces of Borges’ work, whether this would be for me.  Collected here are several ‘fantastical tales of mazes, puzzles, lost labyrinths and bookish mysteries, from the unique imagination of a literary magician’, and all were first published during the 1940s.  They have been variously translated by Donald A. Yates, Andrew Hurley, and James E. Irby.

The stories in this collection are the title story, alongside ‘The Book of Sand’, ‘The Circular Ruins’, ‘On Exactitude in Science’, and ‘Death and the Compass’.  All are very short, and ‘On Exactitude in Science’ covers just a single page.  There are some interesting ideas at play throughout, and I found the collection strange and unusual.  I could never quite guess where the stories were going to end up.

Whilst I found The Garden of Forking Paths interesting enough to read, and enjoyed some of the quite beguiling descriptions in its pages, it has not sparked an interest within me to pick up any more of Borges’ work.  I can see why other readers would really enjoy this collection, but it was not really my style.  The tales were a little obscure for my particular taste at times, and I found that they sometimes ended a little abruptly.

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One From the Archive: ‘Clock Without Hands’ by Carson McCullers ***

Time constraints mean that another post has to be rescheduled, but this one fits in nicely with mine and Yamini’s 50 Women Challenge.  My thoughts about the wonderful Carson McCullers’ Clock Without Hands were first published in 2013.

I had been meaning to read Clock Without Hands for quite some time before I finally began to.  I kept picking it up and then not getting around to it.  It travelled with me to Menorca in September, where I got distracted by my Kindle and the use of a swimming pool, and it has been in my bag on several occasions since.

I love McCullers’ writing.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my favourite novels, dripping with beauty and emotion.  Clock Without Hands tells the story of J.T. Malone, a pharmacist living in a small town in Georgia, who is diagnosed with leukaemia.  He is given between a year and fifteen months to live.  From the start, the story which McCullers presents is quite engrossing, and she builds up sympathy for her protagonist immediately.  The racial disparities throughout are exemplified well, particularly towards the end of the novel.  Sadly, it did not feel as thoughtful or as thought-provoking as the other novels of hers which I’ve read to date.  I enjoyed it on the whole, and I felt that the ending was marvellous, but I doubt that it is a book which I will pick up again in a hurry.

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American Literature Month: Short Story Collections

I thought that I would take the opportunity to recommend some wonderful short story collections during American Literature Month.  Whilst not all of these stories are set in the United States, all of the authors have American nationalities, and there is sure to be something of interest here for every reader.  For each, I have copied the official blurb.

1. Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger (1961)
“The author writes: FRANNY came out in The New Yorker in 1955, and was swiftly followed, in 1957 by ZOOEY. Both stories are early, critical entries in a narrative series I’m doing about a family of settlers in twentieth-century New York, the Glasses. It is a long-term project, patently an ambiguous one, and there is a real-enough danger, I suppose that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods, locutions, and mannerisms. On the whole, though, I’m very hopeful. I love working on these Glass stories, I’ve been waiting for them most of my life, and I think I have fairly decent, monomaniacal plans to finish them with due care and all-available skill.”

2. The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor (1991)
“The publication of this extraordinary volume firmly established Flannery O’Connor’s monumental contribution to American fiction. There are thirty-one stories here in all, including twelve that do not appear in the only two story collections O’Connor put together in her short lifetime–Everything That Rises Must Converge and A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

3. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000) 
“Mr. Kapasi, the protagonist of Jhumpa Lahiri’s title story, would certainly have his work cut out for him if he were forced to interpret the maladies of all the characters in this eloquent debut collection. Take, for example, Shoba and Shukumar, the young couple in “A Temporary Matter” whose marriage is crumbling in the wake of a stillborn child. Or Miranda in “Sexy,” who is involved in a hopeless affair with a married man. But Mr. Kapasi has problems enough of his own; in addition to his regular job working as an interpreter for a doctor who does not speak his patients’ language, he also drives tourists to local sites of interest. His fare on this particular day is Mr. and Mrs. Das–first-generation Americans of Indian descent–and their children. During the course of the afternoon, Mr. Kapasi becomes enamored of Mrs. Das and then becomes her unwilling confidant when she reads too much into his profession. “I told you because of your talents,” she informs him after divulging a startling secret.”

4. The Collected Stories by Eudora Welty (1980)
“Including the earlier collections A Curtain of GreenThe Wide NetThe Golden Apples, and The Bride of the Innisfallen, as well as previously uncollected ones, these forty-one stories demonstrate Eudora Welty’s talent for writing from diverse points-of-view with “vision that is sweet by nature, always humanizing, uncannily objective, but never angry” (Washington Post).”

5. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers (1951)
“In The Ballad of the Sad Café, a tale of unrequited love, Miss Amelia, a spirited, unconventional woman, runs a small-town store and, except for a marriage that lasted just ten days, has always lived alone. Then Cousin Lymon appears from nowhere, a little, strutting hunchback who steals Miss Amelia’s heart. Together they transform the store into a lively, popular café. But when her rejected husband Marvin Macy returns, the result is a bizarre love triangle that brings with it violence, hatred and betrayal.”


Flash Reviews (16th January 2014)

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake – Aimee Bender ****

‘The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake’ by Aimee Bender

I had been looking forward to reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake for rather a long time, ever since I spotted its delicious title and striking cover design in Birmingham’s main branch of Waterstone’s just after its publication.  I read it whilst on holiday in France in December, and found its prose pure poetry.  Rose Edelstein, our protagonist, is in the third grade when she samples a lemon cake baked by her mother, and finds that thereafter, ‘Every food has a feeling’.  Rose can tell, just by nibbling a particular foodstuff, how its chef was feeling as they were making it.

Bender has created such a thoughtful novel, and I warmed to Rose and her family immediately.  She writes beautifully.  The narrative voice which she has crafted is both believable and flows wonderfully.  The way in which she has made use of all of the senses throughout is masterful, and it makes the entirety of the novel so very vivid.  Bender is an author whose works I shall actively seek out in future.  I sense that I have some real treats in store.

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Clock Without Hands – Carson McCullers ***
I had been meaning to read Clock Without Hands for quite some time before I finally began to.  I kept picking it up and then not getting around to it.  It travelled with me to Menorca in September, where I got distracted by my Kindle and the use of a swimming pool, and it has been in my bag on several occasions since.  I took it to France on the same trip which I mentioned above, in the hope that I would finally get around to it.

I love McCullers’ writing.  The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is one of my favourite novels, dripping with beauty and emotion.  Clock Without Hands tells the story of J.T. Malone, a pharmacist living in a small town in Georgia, who is diagnosed with leukaemia.  He is given between a year and fifteen months to live.  From the start, the story which McCullers presents is quite engrossing, and she builds up sympathy for her protagonist immediately.  The racial disparities throughout are exemplified well, particularly towards the end of the novel.  Sadly, it did not feel as thoughtful or as thought-provoking as the other novels of hers which I’ve read to date.  I enjoyed it on the whole, and I felt that the ending was marvellous, but I doubt that it is a book which I will pick up again in a hurry.

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The House of Special Purpose – John Boyne ****
My boyfriend very kindly bought this for me as a congratulations present for reaching my 2012 reading target.  I was eager to start it, loving Russian history as much as I do.  As soon as I opened the first page, I was immediately immersed into the story.  The House of Special Purpose is based upon the last months of the lives of the Romanovs, the royal family who were cruelly murdered during the First Bolshevik Revolution in February 1917.  Alongside their story, Boyne has crafted a fictional narrator, and the mixture of both plots works so well.

The plot was appealing, and the characters were so well crafted.  As with all of Boyne’s novels, his scenes are vivid and his plots believable.  I love the way in which he is faultlessly able to insert his protagonists into some of the biggest events in history, often in quite unusual ways.  Here, a seventeen-year-old boy named Georgy is taken from his rural Russian village in order to protect Tsarevich Alexei, after one gracious act causes him to be seen as a hero.  This story runs concurrently alongside that of when Georgy has become old, and is losing his wife to cancer.  The entire plot was thoughtfully constructed, and I admire Boyne for treating the Romanovs with the utmost respect throughout.  I did not adore this novel as I did The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, but as far as historical novels go, The House of Special Purpose is a great and gripping one.

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Flash Reviews (31st July 2013)

The Doll’s House and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I hadn’t even known of the existence of these newly discovered tales before I spotted them quite by chance whilst searching for Virago books on the Kindle store.  I so enjoyed Lolly Willowes which I read earlier this year that I couldn’t pass up the chance of purchasing the collection and then starting it almost immediately.  What I was greeted with was a short book, but an incredibly good one in terms of the quality of its tales.  I love Townsend Warner’s writing, and she strikes a perfect balance between loveliness and expertly building up an atmosphere.  The lasting quality of these stories and the way they linger in the mind is marvellous.  My favourites were ‘The Doll’s House’ and ‘Haig’.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit' by Jeanette Winterson

‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this novel, but I know that it is much loved and well respected in the literary world.  I had read one of Winterson’s books previous to this (The Passion, a quirky book which I very much enjoyed), and when I spotted it on a crammed shelf in Black Gull Books in Camden, I added it to the (surprisingly) small pile which I was carrying.  The blurb utterly intrigued me.  I found the story incredibly absorbing, and the child narrator Jeanette makes it even more so.  Aspects of the novel were so very sad – for example, Jeanette’s lack of friends, and her classmates and teachers shunning her at school for being so religious – but it was also so witty and amusing.  The balance between the two was expertly done.  Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is an incredibly powerful and unexpected novel.  At one point, it felt as though my heart had been ripped out and stamped over, due to the power of just one sentence.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers
I adore McCullers’ writing, and after reading the beautiful The Heart is a Lonely Hunter earlier this year, I vowed to work my way through her books sooner rather than later.  Whilst the main story in this collection was a relatively interesting one, I do not feel that it or its themes had been quite developed enough.  The characters were not realistic on the whole, and I felt that some of their actions did not at all match McCullers’ initial descriptions of their characters.  I feel as though the length of this story and the mere fact that it was a novella worked against it from the first.  Nothing was quite developed enough.  My favourite part of the story was the stifling and oppressive small town atmosphere which was built up.  After having relatively mixed feelings about The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, I began the short stories with some trepidation.  I was interested to see how McCullers would tackle the often restrictive genre of the short story.  I was beginning to think that these tales were all rather commonplace, and then I reached ‘A Domestic Dilemma’, which proved to be one of the most powerful short stories I’ve read in a long while.  In it, McCullers builds up the atmosphere perfectly, and the musings which the protagonist provides about memory are subtly written and very well woven together.

Candyfloss by Jacqueline Wilson
Yes, I suppose that I am too old to be reading Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but they were such a big part of my

'Candyfloss' by Jacqueline Wilson

‘Candyfloss’ by Jacqueline Wilson

childhood that I still look out for her new publications and will happily read them.  With regard to the storyline in Candyfloss, it was not my favourite of Wilson’s creations, but it tackles issues faced by a worrying amount of children – one parent deciding to move to Australia with her new partner and baby, and the other staying in England.  Whilst the conversation seems a little outdated throughout, the story is sweet, and Floss is a nice little narrator for such a tale.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
I so enjoyed the first book which I read in the Canongate Myths series (the glorious and inventive The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood), and I also so enjoy Smith’s writing in the other books of hers which I’ve read, that I jumped at the chance to read Girl Meets Boy.  On the whole, the tale which she crafted was an imaginative one, and she used the foundations of her chosen myth very well indeed.  Smith presented an interesting blend of modernity and antiquity here, and injected interesting musings on life, society, rights and morals too.  I love the intertwined stories and the use of different narrative voices, all of which were distinct.  The entirety of Girl Meets Boy is tied together so well, and is so intelligent in its tale and its telling.