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Some Southern Appetizers… (Summer Crossing and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe)

May 29, 2008

Before, I get to the reviews, I need your help! My mom’s birthday is coming up, and while I’ve already gotten half of her present, I also want to buy a book. And you know that feeling when you all you want is toothpaste, and the store has six shelves of toothpaste, and you just can’t figure out if you need the whitening, or the extra fluoride, or what? Well, that’s about where I’m at. So I’m asking for some reader advisory stuff. Here’s what my mom loves: probably her very favourite series is Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander one, though she thinks the first four were much better than the later ones. She read Pillars of the Earth earlier this year, and really liked it. (Before you point out that there’s a sequel, it’s still in hardcover, and my mom preferes p/b.) She’s also a fan of mysteries, but I got her some of those for Christmas, so I’d like to try something different. However, her favourite mystery series are also historical, if that helps. She used to read a lot of fantasy, . She’s really picky about the writing: she hates clunky dialogue, lol. She reads quickly, so big books are welcome. And she prefers books that don’t have really sad/tragic endings. Right now, I’m entertaining ideas about The Thirteenth Tale (but I’m worried it might be too gothic for her; she tends to read more down-to-earth stuff or straight-up fantasy), Remains of the Day (because it’s just so beautiful), or Confessions of a Teen Sleuth (I haven’t read this one: it’s a parody of Nancy Drew, and since my mom gave me her childhood Nancy Drews when I was 11, it’s always been something that connects us. Has anyone read it? Is it any good?). On the non-fiction side, she enjoyed Queen Noor’s autobiography. So I thought about getting her a book on Gertrude Bell or some other powerful woman. Now suggest away, even if the book has nothing to do with anything I’ve talked about here! The only requirement is that it’s available in paperback. :)

Since I spent yesterday talking about the South, I might as well continue the theme with two short books by Southern authors, even though they’re about as far from the thriller category as you can get!

Capote, demonstrating the haunted, cigarette-in-hand, I'm-a-real-writer poseTruman Capote’s “Summer Crossing” was my substitute Year of Reading Dangerously choice, since I couldn’t find Other Voices, Other Rooms anywhere. After Capote’s death, this manuscript was found and published. It was obviously written when he was very young, and he obviously didn’t intend to publish it. Keeping that in mind, I still enjoyed it. It’s actually set in New York, but the characters have Southern roots, and there’s definitely a Souther gothic flavour going on. If you add a bit of The Great Gatsby, that kind of recklessness in entitled youth, and remember that a teenager wrote it, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what it’s like. Seventeen-year-old Grady is left by herself when she refuses to accompany her parents on their summer vacation to France. She gets up to all sorts of mischief, with the help of her best friend, Peter, who is also wealthy but has never quite fit in, and the ‘common’ boy she’s fallen in love with. The only other Capote I’ve read is In Cold Blood, which did not impress me, but I see the potential for quite a good fiction writer in this novella, so I’ll definitely be looking into his later books now. All in all, a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing.

McCullers, in a similar pose; who do you think pulls it off better?Then there’s Carson McCullers’ “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe”. This one is absolutely incredible, and you haven’t read it you should go do it as soon as possible. It’s less than a hundred pages, so it won’t take long, but McCullers manages to put more in those pages than a lot of authors do in full-length novels. It’s essentially a love triangle between Miss Amelia (a quite masculine, hard-hearted woman), Cousin Lymon (a hunchback, with all of the characteristics of an old court jester), and Marvin Macy (Miss Amelia’s ex-husband). The narrator is a fourth character, who often intrudes into the story, to say things like

But the hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes. The heart of a hurt child can shrnk so that forever afterward it is hard and pitted as the seed of a peach. Or again, the heart of such a child may fester and swell until it is a misery to carry within the body, easily chafed and hurt by the most ordinary things.

I love these kinds of narrators, and this one perfectly fits the story’s tone. Not only are the characters the kind that stay with you forever, but the story itself lends itself to so many different interpretations. It’s obviously about love, but it also concerns women’s empowerment, and revenge, and how humans deal with poverty, and all sorts of marvelous things. Really, you should just go read it, and decide for yourself what it means. I’d bet every reader has a different interpretation. If McCuller’s other works are half as good, I’ll be flying through them.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. toujoursjacques permalink
    May 30, 2008 5:42 am

    I’m also loving the McCullers, for all the reasons you mention. (And what’s with Southern writers and the cigarettes?)

    Just off the top of my head some ideas.
    Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie Dobbs (first in a series of mysteries set beginning WWI).
    Susan Wittig Albert. A mystery series wherein the sleuth is Beatrix Potter.
    Otherwise I’m coming up empty. I’ll be interested to see other suggestions. TJ

  2. May 30, 2008 6:03 am

    Fingers are crossed…library, please have The Ballad of the Sad Cafe! Sounds fabulous.

  3. May 30, 2008 6:39 am

    I thought of Lonesome Dove for your mother and Gone with the Wind. Two huge epics, avaiable in paperback, and quite engrossing.

    Oh, and like Debi, I’m checking out our copy of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. I LOVED The Heart is a lonely Hunter!

  4. May 30, 2008 7:12 am

    What’s with the Southern authors smoking in their pictures?

    I want to get my hands on “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe”.

  5. May 30, 2008 7:57 am

    On the non-fic side, maybe she would like Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam by Asra Nomani.

    The Ballad of the Sad Cafe sounds like a great read. Someday I will get around to reading more of McCullers!

  6. May 30, 2008 3:34 pm

    I was going to suggest Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue until I saw that your mother doesn’t like books with sad/tragic endings. Oops!

    How about A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka? It was very funny but also has a tender sadness of humanity running through it. It’s p/b.

  7. May 30, 2008 4:27 pm

    How cool is Carson McCullers, I mean seriously just LOOK at her. I wanna ask her for a drag of her ciggy and copycat her hairdo.

  8. May 30, 2008 4:50 pm

    I don’t usually like anything with a sad or tragic ending, either. But, The Remains of the Day — in spite of being a bit sad — is such a wonderful book that I’d definitely say yes to that one. My mom loved history and kind of liked a Philippa Gregory book I sent her (although I think it was a tiny bit too graphic for her). What about Molok’a’i (not sure if the spelling is right on that one)? My all-time personal favorites are The Three Musketeers (oh, oops, the Queen does lose her head) and The Count of Monte Cristo. Oh, and The Man in the Iron Mask. I’m a Dumas girl.

    That’s freaky that both authors have their hands thrown up and a cigarette. They both have a slight look of desperation.

  9. May 30, 2008 5:41 pm

    Anne Perry writes two separate series that are mysteries set in Victorian England. If your mom likes history, either series might appeal to her.


  10. May 30, 2008 6:19 pm

    That is a really cool photo of McCullers. She looks so- completely sure of herself. One of my favorite books is The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Great.

  11. May 30, 2008 6:38 pm

    Hands-down, give your mom Jack Finney’s TIME AND AGAIN (time travel, history, a mystery, and not a sad ending in sight). Meanwhile, I’m going to embark on a Carson McCullers binge at some point, so thanks for the recommendation.

    Oh, and having been raised in the South, I can answer the smoking question for your readers: tobacco=#1 crop for states like N.C. and VA. R. J. Reynolds (Camel) and Philip Morris (Marlboro) are both located down there. (Then again, everyone smoked in their day, Southern or not.)

  12. May 30, 2008 7:16 pm

    I really love that picture of Carson McCullers. That cigarette! That hair! Those chipmunk cheeks! She’s so cute.

  13. May 30, 2008 7:18 pm

    Yay! I went right over to bookmooch after reading your review and found a copy of The Ballad of the Sad Cafe! Can’t wait to read it…it sounds great :)

    I wish I could be of more help with books for your mom, but I’m horrible at picking gifts for people :p But it’s very thoughtful of you to put so much into finding the right book for her! She’ll love whatever it is I’m sure. I loved The Thirteenth Tale, but like you said, it sounds like it may be a bit gothic for her taste.

  14. May 30, 2008 10:50 pm

    TJ, I know-the similarity between the pictures amuses me. :) My mom’s read Maisie Dobbs, but I haven’t heard othe Potter series. Sounds interesting!

    Debi, I hope they have it!

    Maggie, she’s read both of those-thanks for the suggestions! I need to read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter now. :)

    Nik, I know-isn’t it funny? I think it ups their artsy’ quota.

    Alisia, that one sounds interesting!

    Matthew, thanks for the ideas!

    Sheri, welcome back!! And I know-she pulls of the pose way better than Capote. She looks way to cool for me to steal a drag from. :)

    Nancy, lol @ the graphicness. Since my mom loves Gabaldon, she doesn’t mind racy scenes. I’ve never heard of Molok’a’i, so I’ll have to look into it. I loved Three Muskateers too (and I really want to read more of him soon), but my mom told me she’s more in the mood for a contemporary novel. lol Maybe I’ll get her some Dumas for Christmas. :) Don’t the authors look like emo kids nowadays?!

    CJ, thanks! She’s read some of those and enjoyed them, so you’re right on. :)

    Jeane, I’m planning on reading that soon! And McCullers does look sure of herself, in a slightly sad way, if that makes sense.

    Emily, you’ve sold me! I looked it up on Amazon, and I think it’s just what I’m looking for. Thanks so much!

    Bybee, I know-it’s too bad cigarettes are bad for you. If I were a tobacco exec, I’d totally use the picture in an ad campaign. :)

    Chris, yay! I hope you like it. :) I’ve decided since I own The Thirteenth Tale, I can just lend it to her. So I’m going w/ Emily’s suggestion: it sounds perfect.

  15. June 1, 2008 12:56 pm

    The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is one I really need to try. I didn’t particularly enjoy The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, but I wanna give ole Carson another go.

  16. June 1, 2008 10:24 pm

    But it’s the crisp white shirt that pulls it all together…sorry, still obsessing. Wasn’t she about your age when this photo was taken?

  17. June 2, 2008 5:30 pm

    Andi, I haven’t read The Heart…, so I can’t compare the two. But The Ballad… was really good!

    Bybee, yep-she was 23 (taken in 1940), so only a year older. I love how she’s buttoned all the buttons on the shirt, too. And the little collar!


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