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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One From The Archive: ‘Saving CeeCee Honeycutt’ by Beth Hoffman ****

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt begins in Willoughby, a rather quiet town in the state of Ohio, in the 1960s. The main protagonist of the novel, Cecelia Rose Honeycutt, is known by the affectionate nickname of CeeCee. Her story is intriguing from the outset due to its strong opening line: ‘Momma left her red satin shoes in the middle of the road.’

In her writing, Hoffman creates a feeling – almost a sense of foreboding – that things are not quite right from the outset. CeeCee’s father, Carl, is away on business at the start of the book, and her mother Camille’s behaviour becomes rather erratic. When he returns, the entire family structure changes dramatically. Carl spends his time in a fit of rage and takes little notice of CeeCee. He is essentially a cowardly character who often turns to alcohol in order to drown his sorrows. In a round-about way, Carl relies almost entirely upon CeeCee and expects her to look after Camille almost constantly. Hoffman places much focus upon Carl and Camille’s fractured relationship and how uncomfortable it makes their daughter feel from the outset.

It is clear that Camille is unstable. Her behaviour is unpredictable and she has rapid mood swings, which are terrifying for CeeCee, the only other permanent member of the household, to witness. Camille becomes more and more obsessed with a 1951 beauty pageant in which she was crowned ‘Vidalia Onion Queen’, believing that her past is her ‘real life’. The relationship between mother and daughter which Hoffman portrays is incredibly sad. It is wrought with misunderstandings and dawning understanding, along with strong personality clashes.

Lonely CeeCee, who is unpopular at school, finds a friend in her kindly elderly neighbour Gertrude Odell. Aside from Gertrude’s occasional wisdom, CeeCee does not have much guidance whatsoever from the adults around her. She is quite often left to her own devices, becoming more and more absorbed in her books as time progresses. She strives to make her own life seem less like reality and more like a fictionalised tale which she is separate from, rather than an intrinsic part of. Her seeking solace in the library is reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

As the story progresses, the reader really begins to feel for CeeCee and her plight. She yearns for normality and seems to have no choice aside from growing up incredibly quickly. Her child self has some very adult responsibilities thrust upon it. Her entire world is turned upside down when her mother is suddenly killed and she is subsequently amazed that life continues around her. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt follows the protagonist during the summer in which her life changes completely.

After her mother’s death, CeeCee’s Great-Aunt Tallulah Caldwell – known by all and sundry as ‘Aunt Tootie’ – arrives in Ohio. CeeCee is consequently sent away to live with her in a large house in Savannah, Georgia. When the action moves to Savannah, the characters become incredibly vivid and flamboyant. Aunt Tootie is an incredibly charismatic woman with a penchant for collecting vibrant hats, ‘old houses, antique clocks and Boston cream pie’. Other characters, the majority of which are single women, are Aunt Tootie’s black cook Oletta, ‘flap-jawed busybody’ Violene Hobbs and elegant Thelma Rae Goodpepper. CeeCee is welcomed with open arms by them all, and soon sees the society she is in as ‘a strange, perfumed world that… seemed to be run entirely by women’. Although life in Savannah seems like an alien concept at first, she soon fits in.

CeeCee is forced to grow up even more as the novel progresses. Shocking racial prejudices and attacks which she witnesses challenge her perceptions. She sees things which no adults would want to witness, let alone a twelve-year-old girl. CeeCee continually tries to make sense of the world itself and her personal place within it. She is inquisitive and is forever asking questions about everything going on around her. She soon embarks on a steep learning curve, as everyone around her has something to teach her or some wisdom to impart.

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is told from the first person perspective of CeeCee herself. As well as the conscious narrative stream, the novel contains many flashbacks from CeeCee’s past. Hoffman really brings the voice of her protagonist alive and brilliantly captures her growing embarrassment regarding her mother’s behaviour and trying to constantly please those around her. There are lots of childish aspects in CeeCee’s narrative at first. She sweetly stores up advice for the future from events which she witnesses in her home town – for example, ‘I made a mental note that if I ever needed help from a man I would make him a pie’.

Hoffman certainly captures American dialect within the dialogue of her characters. She does not make too much of it and gets the balance of slang words and colloquialisms just right. The dialogue is well written on the whole but some of the characters do not really stand out when they talk. Carl’s speech patterns particularly seem a little abrupt in places.

The descriptions in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt are wonderful and, even with the story told from the point of view of a young girl, Hoffman’s use of vocabulary is far from mundane. Moods of Camille’s ‘spike and plummet like a yo-yo’, and she is viewed by her daughter as a ‘crown-wearing, lipstick-smeared lunatic’. Hoffman’s portrayal of houses and scenery in the novel is decent enough, but there are perhaps not as many descriptions in the book as the reader would hope for. She sets the scene, but does not do so as fully as she could have done.

The aspect of social history in the novel is certainly interesting, particularly with regard to racial prejudices and mental illness, but much more could have been made of both. Some of the period details in the novel didn’t seem quite right. Hoffman has not written about any stigma attached to mental illness, which would have been prevalent in society at the time. In the book, mental illness is talked about as if it is an everyday occurrence which is not to be worried about, rather than something to be hushed up and swept under the carpet. The novel would also benefit from a few page breaks in order to separate the story. Weeks pass between connected paragraphs which does make the novel a little difficult to follow in places.

In conclusion, Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is a wise novel which is heartwarming and amusing in equal measure. It is a relatively easy read and an enjoyable one at that. The story is not overly action-packed, but it does not need to be. An overriding theme in the novel is triumphing over adversity. The strong women in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt clash with one another at times, but eventually overcome their problems. The novel is essentially a celebration of family, friends, community and, in part, America.

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American Literature Month: Flash Reviews from the Archives

A series of flash reviews of American Literature seems a fitting interlude to post amongst the extensive reviews of late.  These have all been posted on the blog over the last couple of years.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner ****
I adore the Deep South as a setting and am wondering why, after finishing this stunning novel, I’ve not read any of Faulkner’s work before.  I adored the differing perspectives throughout, and the way in which each and every one of them was so marvellously distinct.  The story is such an absorbing one, and I love the idea of it – a family waiting for and commenting upon the death of one of their members.  Faulkner’s differing prose techniques in use in As I Lay Dying are wonderful, and show that as a writer, he is incredibly skilled.  Terribly sad on the whole and very cleverly constructed.

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Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann ***
I have read some absolutely marvellous reviews of this novel, and couldn’t wait to begin it.  The prologue of Let The Great World Spin is visually stunning and well thought out.  If only the rest of the book had been the same!  I enjoyed the author’s writing on the whole – some of his descriptions, for example, are sumptuous – but my stumbling block came with the characters.  They were interesting enough on the whole, but they were all so broken, often by alcohol and drugs.  Because of this, no distinct characters stood out for me, and I found it difficult to empathise with any of them in consequence.  An interesting novel, but a little disappointing by all accounts.

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Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan ****
Summer days warrant these witty, fun reads for me.  The books which Cohn and Levithan write are not your usual teen fare.  Rather than being fluffy, simply written and overly predictable (sorry, Sara Dessen, but I’m looking at you), their tales are smart, well constructed, intelligent in their prose and rather unique in terms of the cast of characters they create.  Yes, I suppose that there was an element of predictability here with regard to the ending, but the entire story was so well wrought that it really didn’t matter.  The characters are all marvellous, with perhaps the exclusion of Naomi, whom I found to be an incredibly difficult protagonist to get along with.  I loved the way in which Cohn and Levithan tackled serious issues – the rocky road of teen friendships, homosexuality, trying desperately to conform with peers, and so on.  Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List is a great book, and one which I struggled to put down.

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Children on Their Birthdays by Truman Capote *****
As with the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I got straight into these stories from the outset. I love the stunning sense of place which Capote never fails to create, and his characters are both marvellously and deftly constructed. His writing is just perfect. The tales in Children on Their Birthdays are short, but boy, are they powerful and thought provoking.

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A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams *****
Williams portrays relationships, even the most complicated, in a masterful manner. I love the way in which he writes. His characterisation is second to none, and he gives one so much to admire in each scene, each act. The characters were all fundamentally troubled souls, each imperfect in his or her own way, but they worked so well as a cast, and Blanche Du Bois is eternally endearing. Williams’ dialogue is pitch perfect. An absolutely marvellous, perceptive, strong and unforgettable play, and one which I’m now longing to see performed.

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