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April 2013

Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951).
Recommended for adults.

Eleven years after this child prodigy published The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) at the tender age of twenty-one, she produced this novella. It is a meditation on love, not on what it is, but on what it does to people, even the most unlikely ones. In a tiny mill town deep in the pines of northern Georgia Miss Amelia comes to love the drifter Lymon, but he in turn falls under the spell of the no-good Marvin Macy. These loves are not of the flesh, I add. But slowly, Amelia discovers that she likes doing things for Lymon, and the more she does, the more he takes it as his due with nary a word of thanks. This she does not mind. Then Marvin reappears and slowly Lymon comes to admire and imitate Marvin. Along the way McCullers offers a glimpse of the people and practices of that isolated community. Lymon cannot bear to be parted from Marvin, and so the despicable Marvin moves in with Lymon and Miss Amelia. In time she is displaced from her own home to allow Lymon to serve Marvin.

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I read a lot of Carson McCullers’s novels in high school and college, and having re-read The Ballad of the Sad Cafe I am reminded why. The judgements are sharp, Marvin is a creep, but even so McCullers extends a compassionate gaze on him, too: He is the way God made him, part of this world. Neither more nor less than anyone else.

That Lymon is a dwarf, Miss Amelia acts more like a man than many men, that Marvin’s brother is ineffectual, adds color to the account but these are only the surfaces beneath which McCullers peers, perceptive, unflinching, calm, and determined. No these oddities is what attracted a Hollywood film maker to mangle it.

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My mission is clear. It is time to read anew The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and see how Sam and Mickey have aged since last I had their company.

Quite a trip once again. Set in northern Vermont in 1930, On Kingdom Mountain is the story of Miss Jane Hubbell Kinneson. Recommended for adults.

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A bookwoman, bird carver, and the last remaining resident Kingdom Mountain on the Vermont-Quebec border, which mountain is now threatened by a new highway. Miss Jane encounters a mysterious stunt pilot and weather-maker when his biplane crashes on a frozen lake. He brings with him a riddle containing clues to the whereabouts of stolen gold that may have been hidden on Kingdom Mountain. As she and the courteous aviator search for the treasure, Miss Jane is confronted by the most important decisions of her life. Lost gold, rainmaking, a combine harvester on the loose, much bird carving, char not trout, many French-Canadians about, a fly-in and out, wing walking, not to forget the sex, and more. Did I mention buried treasure? Miss Jane approves of firearms, and how.

On a fine Sunday afternoon with blue sky and green grass aplenty we sat in a dark room and watched “Kon Tiki (2012). Recommended for adults.

Thor Heyedal’s greatest contribution is that he believed those primitive people had the wit and willingness for such a colossal undertaking. I said ‘primitive people’ to mimic that great scourge of reason, Erich von Däniken who always says in response to his own rhetorical question: "How could these primitive people do it?" by saying the aliens did it. Heyedal is a wonderful antidote to that drivel. Moreover, they did not just go with the flow but also charted their travels with the stars.

The film has something for everyone. Some intellectual weight, a cast of handsome Aryans, some light relief, and plenty of adventure and action. Though some viewers may conclude that it all came down to Heyerdal’s will power and conviction and not to the evidence he had before he started and that would be a shame. He did have evidence, and faith does not move ocean currents.


No doubt the moronic fault-finders will find that which they seek and miss the point.

Howard Frank Mosher, Northern Borders (1995). Recommended for adults.

A coming of age story set in the remote Kingdom County Vermont in the 1940s and 1950s. When his mother dies six-year old Austin Kittredge is sent to live with his grandparents in township of Lost Nation.

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There he works on the farm, which produces just about enough food to sustain life, and helps with apple jam and the one-man saw mill to earn cash money. The work starts before dawn most days and involves strenuous physical labor in shifting planks, milking cows, haying the stock, fighting off the predators (some animal, others human). As Austin grows he deals with a school teacher in the one-room school house who is in equal parts a thug and an ignoramus. He develops a reputation as a ‘famous reader’ which is a term of derision most of the time. The repeated beauties of nature are detailed but so is the cruelty and indifference of nature detailed.

More importantly, he survives the Forty Year War between his grandparents, and they each individually slowly reveal to him their inner most secrets. Hers is Egypt and his is Labrador. Along the way there are sled rides, a fight at a traveling carnival, the assault of a snow owl, the fall of much snow to be waded through hip deep, a Solomon-like judgement, and a memorable performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Then the Grandmother dies and Austin and his grandfather go to Labrador, where the latter, has always been. It is an arduous trip but the arrival is well worth it.

Over ten years Austin passes almost imperceptibly from boy to adolescent and seems well set to be adult.

Because the central character is a young boy at the start, no doubt many libraries will shelve it as Young Adult. It can be that, but it is also much more. Although Whiskey Jack’s reading matter might belie that conclusion. (Read the book to get the point.)

William Styron (1925-2006) published the novel Lie Down in Darkness (1951) when he was twenty-six, a boy. Recommended for adults.

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How could a boy have had all those voices in his mind: Milton, the alcoholic lawyer; Helen, the angry, self-martyred wife; the Elektra-like daughter, Peyton; Carey, the childish churchman; and all the others. It was hailed as a masterpiece when it appeared but it has not weathered so well in the eyes of some reviewers. On that more later.

First for the uninitiated it is a southern novel, what has been called, Southern Gothic (for a definition see:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_Gothic). Styron did not write another novel of this ilk, though he wrote others that are better known: The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) and Sophie’s Choice (1979). I have already commented on his The Long March (1952). By the way, a reader would never connect the spare prose of that book with the languid and at times moving descriptions of people, places, and gestures in Lie Down in Darkness. The two books seem to come from two different hands.

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Recent retrospective reviews that I have read seem to be driven by the need of the reviewer to demonstrate superiority, moral, technical, literary, to Styron and his novel. Thus they comment on the condescending references to blacks, the drumbeat of negation that runs through the story, the unbelievable medical interludes, the inconsistent references to psychoanalysis, the stream of consciousness chapter is labeled imitative of William Faulkner (who thought highly of this book), the Sunday school theology, and even the geography of the story. To read such reviews one might wonder why bother. Here’s why.

When the needs of the reviewer takes priority over the book reviewed much is taken out of context and rendered disproportionate. The book is no dirge. There are arresting passages of great beauty, as when Helen describes her love of Maudie, the oldest daughter with brain damage and polio; as when the juggler appears in the rain; as when the train rocks through the woodlands of northern Virginia; as when Milton swears off drink (again, and again, and again); and most of all in that stream of consciousness chapter inside Peyton’s broken soul. It is certainly not imitative, transcendent rather.

There are novels of that time and place that do more justice to blacks, agreed, here I think of many examples in Faulkner, but they are few, too few and too singular to be a standard against which to judge this book. Nor does one read a novel to learn of medicine, psychoanalysis, theology, or geography. Let the poet have license.

Of course, there is no explanation of why Peyton was so fated. She just was. That is the premise of the story. The parents, Milton and Helen, blame each other, as mature adults do. But given that she is, the rest unfolds.

I first read this novel when I was about twenty, not much younger than Styron was when he started writing it at age twenty-three, and that makes it all the more remarkable that he had all those voices in his mind, though he could not always control them each, nor orchestrate them just so. For all of that, it remains a masterpiece.

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Some books are too complicated for a reader’s good. Here’s what I do about it.

Many of the krimmies I read have two parallel story lines: the police procedural and the villains getting up to villainy, often in every-other chapter. Toward the end these parallel lines meet. The technique is common but it takes an uncommon writer to do it well. To make both the plodding police and the risk-taking villains believable and interesting.

For the most part, the technique is connect-the-dots because it spins our the story, makes the book bigger (so the punter feels like it is more for the money, etc). A successful writer’s second book is never shorter than the first one, that must be a rule in publishing, and so on to the third in a mindless progression. But the results is unbalanced, not in page count, but in interest.

I am reading one such example now: Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Absent One (2012).

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The police procedural part is well done, the characters interesting, the office politics credible, the dogged persistence refreshing in a world of 30-second attention spans, the speculative leaps satisfying if sometimes ill-judged, the varying interpretations that evidence supports intriguing, and so on. That is the half I am reading.

But every second chapter concerns the villains, and they are such cardboard characters that as they enter the pages a hiss rises from book. The author’s distant contempt for anyone with money and they are always the villains in these books is blinding. Everyone who drives a BMW or owns a house is presented as an unindicted war criminal who grew up pulling the arms off the children of the toiling working class. So I express right through those chapters by turning the pages. These villain-chapters fatten up the book but they only parade the author’s prejudices, no doubt in the effort to tap into the like prejudices of readers. Oh hum.

Ergo I can recommend half of The Absent One, but not the whole.

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