The Fashion Magpie Book Club

Magpie Book Club: Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

4.5 stars. Excellent but dreary reading. I cannot — cannot — get over the fact that this book was authored by a twenty-three year old in 1940 — the book is profoundly modern and shockingly sophisticated. I feel that my awareness of these colophonic details shaped my appreciation of the novel considerably, and I tend to be more of a close reading type (i.e., I tend to give more weight to the internal workings of a book rather than to its historical context when grappling with a text). But even if we are to set the details of its authorship and publication aside, the book is rich and trying and determinedly itself.

The book read like an Edward Hopper painting: individuals in isolation against a barren landscape, the vague presence of macro-economic and social forces looming never far from the foreground. Characters in Hopper paintings are often kept forcibly apart from one another, separated by jarring angles and the clever use of chiaroscuro: a woman standing outside of a theatre in a pool of light while all else is dim on the inside; a man at the corner of an angular bar at night, segregated from the barkeep by the counter on the one hand and segregated from us voyeurs by the pane of glass and stretch of street between us.

McCullers paints with a similar brush: characters are desperately orphaned, isolated from one another. They are crying out for connection, but cannot be heard or understood — or are silenced or spoken over. Even those who come together in peaceable conversation are futile in their attempts to effectively share an understanding. There are two vignettes that establish this theme with particular concision:

First, the visiting of Mr. Singer by the various characters in the book as they seek comfort and companionship while battling their own aspirations and demons. At one point, McCullers writes: “…The rich though that [Mr. Singer] was rich and the poor considered him a poor man like themselves. And as there was no way to disprove these rumors they grew marvelous and very real. Each man described the mute as he wished him to be.”

Second, when an ailing Mr. Copeland and an enflamed Jake Blount discuss politics, they seem to share similar perspectives and yet Blount talks loudly over Mr. Copeland, drowning him out and re-directing the conversation until they wind up in a shouting match. Though Blount’s politics are difficult to understand (and occasionally contradictory) owing to his habit of rambling about his thoughts while drunk, stringing together various religious and political credo, it seems that the two characters share a similar outlook on the fundamental equality of all humans — and yet their conversation comes to blows.

All in, the book foregrounds a Hobbesian worldview: life is nasty, brutish, and short, and much of it is spent howling into the dark in the futile hopes that someone might hear us. (Is there any more haunting vision of this theme than of Willie laying with his feet tied up in that cold room, punished for a vague wrongdoing?)

I, as you probably can guess, have a drastically different outlook on life and therefore felt a kind of uneasy cognitive dissonance with its premise. I found myself aching for the book to end for this reason, even though I appreciated and marveled at its craftsmanship and occasionally shocking eloquence with words. (You will probably see me trot out “inchoate” in the coming weeks.) Still, there were moments in the book that struck me as so deeply true as to knock the wind out of me. The scenes of Mick in particular resonated with me — even small, quiet moments, as when she is climbing down from the top of a roof early in the novel and describing her gradual descent and her nervous reaction to it, or when we see her angling for companionship from her brother in the hopes of distracting herself from the disturbance of her waking thoughts. (Yet another vision of the book’s predominant motif: Mick whispering urgently into the night in the hopes of provoking a response from her sleeping brother.) The drawing of Mick was so well-done, so true to life, that I re-read portions of it with the kind of hungry attention to detail a horologist might exhibit in examining the way a watch is put together.

Reading Questions.

+Did knowing the details of the book’s authorship shape your reading of the book? How and why? If this book had been authored by a 60-year-old man in 2010, how would it have changed your interpretation (if at all)?

+What did you make of the title of the book, drawn from a poem by William Sharp: “but my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts / on a lonely hill”?

+Why do you think McCullers chose to follow the stories of five different characters so carefully (Mick Kelly, Jake Blount, Mr. Singer, Biff Brannon, Benedict Copeland)?

+How did you interpret the relationship between those five characters especially with regards to their shared bond with Mr. Singer?

+The book makes much of sound, silence, music (think specifically of Mick and Willie), muteness, deafness, etc. What’s going on with the emphasis on the auditory?

+Racial relations play heavily into all of the plotlines in the book. How did you interpret the book’s central themes of isolation and alienation within this social context?

+How did you understand the relationship between Antonapoulos and Singer?

+How did the book’s setting (a small, Southern town) impact your reading of the book and its happenings?

Magpie February Book Club Pick: Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”

OK. This is a candidate for one of the most random book club picks to date, but bear with me.

I had been debating whether or not it was problematic that we have only ever read female authors in this book club, and, provoked by one of the reading questions I crafted above, I came to the determination that we should expand our repertoire to include gentlemen authors as well. Earlier in this post, I asked the possibly ludicrous question as to how the details of last month’s book’s publication shaped our interpretation of the novel — and how we might have understood it differently had it been written by a man today. The provocation led me to ponder the gender politics we have been spooling yet not fully articulating in our discussions of these books.

And so I thought it might be time to read a book by a male author — and one who comes highly praised and whose novel has been on my radar since it was first published in 2009. I have read shamefully little about American Indian culture despite its indigenousness to the country in which I live, and I am hooked by the narrative premise of this book, which is told from the perspective of a young boy. I won’t say he’s an unreliable narrator, but that as I was tearing through the first few pages of the book, I felt myself reading on two very different planes: first, with empathy for the boy’s understanding of the world and second, with a more knowing, situated “I am an adult and can read between the lines here” kind of head bob–an intriguing and complex setup for a novel and for its readership. I’m also already fascinated by the use of comic book-type sketching throughout. A lot to unpack in just the sheer construction of the book.

So that’s our next pick! Let’s aim to finish by February 25th.

Runners up: Delia Owens’ Where the Crawdads Sing (everyone I know is reading this book) and (a runner up for the past many months but it just hasn’t gripped my interest yet) Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire.

First taking a breather with this or this.

Post Scripts.

+I need some new sunglasses. I wore these to the exclusion of all other pairs I own for nearly two years and then they snapped in two the other week. I’m intrigued by the dramatic cateye that’s been all over the place — these and these are fantastic.

+A review of the best book I read in 2018.

+Speaking of: more musings on the book, plus little love notes.

+I have a problem with Lele Sadoughi’s headbands: I want them all. I think I need this denim style for spring. (P.S. — The pearl one I own is available again for pre-order here.)

+Currently in my cart as a treat to myself once I hit month 8 or 9 of this pregnancy and the weather begins to turn. Don’t these look fantastically comfortable? (And LE PRIX!)

+I recently uncovered a travel size version of Tatcha’s The Deep Cleanse exfoliating cleanser, which I must have purchased before a trip at some point over the last year. I’ve been using it while waiting for my Tata Harper to arrive in the mail and I have to say I think it’s a pretty solid dupe/replacement and at a much better price.

+Loved reading through your intentions/resolutions for 2019.

+LOVE this dress. The color, the fabric, the pleating, the draping!

+La Coqueta is having a major sale right now. Love this and this.

+We order a lot of ramen in our household and mini loves it (“noo noos” she calls it — “noodles”). I am wondering how she’d fare with these

+Love this funnel-necked, quilted sweatshirt from New Balance, especially in the conch pink, and these leggings, in case you’re still looking for motivation to get to the gym. (Not that I’ve been.)

+My beloved faux-Goyard iPhone case finally bit the dust. Debating re-ordering in a different color or snagging one of these.

+CUTE Valentine’s Day jammies for your little one.

+Have I lived in NY for too long or is this like a really really good deal? I normally pay $4-ish for a pack of 4 Go Go Squeez applesauces; occasionally they’re marked down to $3. Here’s a pack of 20 for $10? YAS. Ordered. May order another box and pass these out as “Valentine’s” to all of mini’s little friends…

+Cute ODL lookalikes for under $40.

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14 Comments

  1. As far as Depression-era fiction goes, I didn’t find Hunter particularly bleak, just spare, and small. I couldn’t figure out whether Singer was meant to be more than a device—a cipher through which the others come to terms with their fates—or a character in his own tight. I didn’t get enough of him and his motivations after Spiros went away, and I didn’t really understand what drew him to Spiros either. Everyone was using him but Spiros was the only one he responded to. (I know there’s no accounting for taste…but isn’t there?)
    That said, I do love the book, for the writing itself and for the time and place it captured. And I don’t know as there is any separating it from the author — a 60yo white man writing it today probably would have turned it into some EPIC TALE OF SOCIETY AND HUMAN NATURE AND THE FOIBLES OF POWER. This is better, I think.

    1. Such an interesting set of questions, Claire. I also felt Singer was one-dimensional, and understood his purpose in the novel better after that quote about how everyone projected their own desires onto the mute — the book’s audience included, I came to think? At that point, I stopped trying to “read” Singer and started to view him as a means to understand the other characters.

      Anyway, really good points!

    1. Yikes! Had not heard about this, but this context will I’m sure contribute to an interesting book club conversation. Thanks for sharing. xo

    2. Yes! Yuck. This has made some of my colleagues pull him from syllabi. It’s also discouraged me from re-reading this one, but I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts. I loved Where the Crawdads Sing so much more than I expected to (got completely absorbed in it while sitting on an uncomfortable bench in my daughter’s ballet class waiting room) and I taught Home Fires in a British novels class last year. It’s a loose retelling of Antigone, and I think a great one.

  2. Love these book posts! I always refer back to them when I need something to read!

    Random book recs: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin and The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. Where the Crawdads Sing was really good but I think The Great Believers is better, although I may be biased as a lot of it takes place in my old neighborhood in Chicago.

    1. Oo thanks for the recs! Added to my lists. So many people have recommended the Benjamin book to me recently! Must read. xo

  3. Read that years ago in high school, and need to revisit it as an adult.

    Excited you have picked “The Absolutley True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” As far as I am aware, it is one of the only books with a protagonist ( or any character, really) with hydrocephalus. My youngest kiddo has/ had (depending on which doctor you ask) hydrocephalus too, and I appreciated that greatly. Will be re-reading it too!

  4. I had a similar reading experience, which made me sad because I really wanted to love this book. Several people in my life called it one of their favorites, so I had high hopes. But I really had to make myself keep turning the pages, however illuminating her prose was. It was BLEAK. And also the plot took some time to come together- there was a long period at the beginning where I wasn’t sure where the whole thing was going. I definitely read Mick as an analogue of the writer- in her bright curiosity and keen observational skills in a time/place where that didn’t seem to be hugely rewarded in a girl.

    If you’re looking for another book written in the 1930s, I highly suggest Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. It is, in a word, WILD. I read it for another book club at the same time I was reading McCullers, which was an interesting contrast. Rebecca is a master class in plot and atmosphere, and I loved every page of it.

    1. Completely agree with you on your interpretation of McCullers. It was hard going for me, even though I appreciated her skill and felt a sense of smugness as I completed it — “there, check. Another classic in my repertoire.” I think it’s an important point of reference, and I’m glad I read it. But — didn’t make for a particularly enjoyable experience for me.

      I LOVE REBECCA. LOVE. Have read it at least two or three times. We read it first in high school and my best friend and I loved the book so much at the time that she started referring to my childhood home as “Nurmily,” a kind of blending of “Manderley” with my maiden last name, “Nurmi.” The name stuck and I have friends even now — ones who I didn’t meet until college! — that talk about “Nurmily.” HA! Anyway, we actually read Du Maurier’s “My Cousin Rachel” for this book club a few months back and a lot of us LOVED it. She’s an excellent and underrated writer in my opinion. Deft at character drawing!

  5. I’m curious about this McCullers book — haven’t read it yet, and I’m not sure I’m currently in the right headspace for a dreary read, but I’m going to keep it on my list for the future. My interest has been piqued! Also, I love the word ‘inchoate’. So good.

    I am currently reading Crazy Rich Asians (ha! I saw the film on a plane in December & remembered that I had bought the book last spring and thought it’d still be worth reading) … but I’m thinking I might pause it to start something else. I have One Day in December on my nightstand and might start that tonight. Otherwise, I’ve really wanted to read In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, and my mom is saving Michelle Obama’s memoir for me to pick up when I visit this weekend.

    I bought a pair of (slightly more subtle) cat-eye sunglasses on your recommendation a few weeks back — the glittery tortoise ones from J.Crew! — and I LOVE THEM. They were like $25 thanks to a generous promo code! Can’t beat that price for a flight of fancy, though I love Illesteva sunnies as well (the other pair I have in most frequent rotation are their Leonard frames in matte tortoise with mirrored lenses.)

    That quilted NB sweatshirt is so adorable! I now want it in olive green. Ahhh!

    1. Yes!!! So chic — loved those shades. Had actually forgotten about them but think those might be just the right ticket for a less expensive tide-me-over pair for this holiday/season. Thank you!

      xoxo

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