Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review: The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

Wanting to Belong: A Book Review of The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

This is such a strange little book. I loved some parts and didn’t love other parts. It revolves around Frankie Addams, who is twelve and a half years old. For me this was a really significant age, and I think the book does a great job of encapsulating the feelings and experiences associated with that age: Frankie’s no longer a child, yet she’s not yet a woman. She feels like she doesn’t belong anywhere, and she’s trying to figure out who she is and who she wants to be. So the first thing I loved about The Member of the Wedding was its theme, although I think some would criticize it for not having much of a traditional plot.

The second thing I loved about The Member of the Wedding was its setting. Frankie lives in a small town in Georgia during World War II. Loneliness surrounds her. Her mother died during childbirth with her, so she has never had a mother or siblings. Her father works a lot and when he is home, he is in his own world of books and newspapers, and really doesn’t pay her much attention. Her only good girl friend moved away, and she’s not a member of the “club” of popular girls at her school. She used to be part of it at one time, but as she got a bit older it’s clear that she’s different from those girls. Sexual identity is explored in the book: Frankie wants to be a pretty, grown woman, but, with her dirty elbows, her crew cut, and her hyper (some would say obnoxious) personality, in many ways she looks and acts more like a boy.

The Member of the Wedding takes place during the summer, so Frankie’s not in school and she spends her days hanging out at home—mostly in the kitchen—with her black housekeeper Berenice and her seven-year-old cousin John Henry. The constant kitchen setting causes the book to lag and feel like it’s dragging on; I think I would have liked it even better if it was a long short story or an even shorter novel. At the same time, the drawn-out kitchen scenes show Frankie’s daily life and how it’s filled with boredom yet comfort. (“They sat together in the kitchen, and the kitchen was a sad and ugly room. John Henry had covered the walls with queer, child drawings, as far up as his arm would reach. This gave the kitchen a crazy look, like that of a room in the crazy-house. And now the old kitchen made Frankie sick. The name for what had happened to her Frankie did not know, but she could feel her squeezed heart beating against the table edge.”)

Frankie longs for change and adventure, and at the same time she longs to fit in with someone somewhere. (“The spring of that year had been a long queer season. Things began to change and Frankie did not understand this change. After the plain gray winter the March winds banged on the windowpanes, and clouds were shirred and white on the blue sky. April that year came sudden and still, the green of the trees was a wild bright green. The pale wistarias bloomed all over town, and silently the blossoms shattered. There was something about the green trees and the flowers of April that made Frankie sad. She did not know why she was sad, but because of this peculiar sadness, she began to realize she ought to leave the town. She read the war news and thought about the world and packed her suitcase to go away; but she did not know where she should go.”)

All of this leads up to Frankie’s recent obsession: running away with her brother and his fiance after they get married. She has been invited to be in their wedding, and she is so happy to “belong” to something that she really gets very carried away in a fantasy of living a new life in a new place with the newlyweds. She changes to her name to “F. Jasmine,” she finds a pretty pink dress that her father buys her for the wedding, and she goes around town telling everyone her plan to move away with her brother and soon-to-be-sister-in-law. All dressed up for the wedding and on the verge of womanhood, she looks much older, and is invited out on a date with a soldier, which she accepts with a mixture of hesitation and excitement.

What I didn’t love about The Member of the Wedding is that there’s a lot of slow build-up without too much action or delivery. Most of the book takes place over just a couple days, but they feel like years. (I guess that’s how it feels for a twelve-and-a-half year old, too!) I enjoyed the scenes featuring Frankie, Berenice and John Henry in the kitchen, savoring delicious-sounding Southern food and talking about everything from love to race relations to what they would change about the world if they were God. (“Now hopping-john was F. Jasmine’s very favorite food. She had always warned them to wave a plate of rice and peas before her nose when she was in her coffin, to make certain there was no mistake; for if a breath of life was left in her, she would sit up and eat, but if she smelled the hopping-john, and did not stir, then they could just nail down the coffin and be certain she was truly dead. Now Berenice had chose for her death-test a piece of fried fresh-water trout, and for John Henry it was divinity fudge.”)

After awhile, though, I was anxious to have Frankie get out there and experience the real world. I suppose that that was the point of writing the book like that, so the reader could feel what life was like for Frankie. Although it may appear to an outsider—even the reader—that not much is going on, to Frankie, a lot is happening. She is bored and excited, fearless and fearful, lonely and comfortable with the familiar, happy and sad and up and down. That’s all because she’s at the crazy in-between age of twelve and a half. I loved that about Frankie but at other times she seemed very contradicting and hard to figure out. At one moment she would seem so thoughtful and mature, and the next moment she would be stomping her feet and saying cruel things to the people she loved, and seeming very immature and annoying. I guess, again, that’s because of her age and her transitioning. At times Frankie–or F. Jasmine–is confused about her own expressions and mannerisms. At one point she is upset with Berenice for not telling her about a grown-up matter, but happy with Berenice for ironing the little pleats around the collar of her pink wedding dress. “She would have liked for her expression to be split into two parts, so that one eye stared at Berenice in an accusing way, and the other eye thanked her with a grateful look. But the human face does not divide like this, and the two expressions canceled out each other.”

What I absolutely loved about The Member of the Wedding was its language. McCullers has a way of describing the small, even mundane, things in life in a completely lovely and relatable way, and then of course she describes the big, mind-blowing things in life the same way. (“The twilight was white, and it lasted for a long while. Time in August could be divided into four parts: morning, afternoon, twilight, and dark. At twilight the sky became a curious blue-green which soon faded to white. The air was soft gray, and the arbor and tress were slowly darkening. It was the hour when sparrows gathered and whirled above the rooftops of the town, and when in the darkened elms along the street there was the August sound of the cicadas. Noises at twilight had a blurred sound, and they lingered: the slam of a screen door down the street, voices of children, the whir of a lawnmower from a yard somewhere.”)

For me this book is best read all at once if possible. When I put it down and picked it back up it seemed rather boring, like not much was happening, but when I read whole parts straight through, I became so wrapped up in the language and tone that it felt magical. I would like to read this book again when I have time to read it all in one day or weekend. Although I really liked it the first time around, I was trying to cram it in, in between selling my fiance’s house, renting out my house, moving into a new house, planning a wedding, traveling to Vegas, etc. It seems to me to be one of those books that gets better with re-reading.

The tone and strangeness of The Member of the Wedding reminded me in some ways of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, while the age and oddity of the narrator reminded me of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Jonathan Safron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. This book is certainly unique, though, and stands out as something entirely of McCullers’s creation. It’s the first book I’ve read by her and I look forward to reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.

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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Headed to Vegas for the weekend

I'm going to Vegas tomorrow for the weekend, for one of my best friend's bachelorette parties. My fiance's parents and his sister also happen to be in Vegas, so I will be seeing Jersey Boys with them on Sunday night, after the bachelorette party ends.

Things have been crazy busy for me, as you can probably tell from my lack of posts. We are under contract to sell my fiance's current house and buy a new house (our closing/ moving date is Tuesday, right after I get back from Vegas!) I also just rented out my townhouse to new tenants. Plus, we're planning our wedding. And working!

With all of that going on, I haven't had too much time to read or write, which always makes me feel bummed. I recently re-wrote a flash fiction piece so I could enter it into the Our Stories writing contest. It still needs some work but I'm happy to be making some process. I'm currently reading three different books whenever I have the time to fit any part of any one in, which I'll review here as soon as I finish them! I'm excited to be having a mini-vacation even though it's in the midst of the chaos.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Book Review: The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

Unfortunately, a Let-Down: A Book Review of The Wednesday Sisters, by Meg Waite Clayton

I had high hopes for this book. (Maybe I had such high hopes that I had raised the bar too high?) I had read somewhere that Ms. Clayton used to be a corporate transaction attorney at a large law firm. After she ceased practicing law, she wrote this book. As a lawyer and aspiring writer, I was drawn to it from that angle. Then there was the fact that the book is about a group of aspiring writers, who form a writing group and try to publish. That sounds like me, so I thought I could relate. Finally, the book takes place in San Francisco starting in the 1960's. The interview I'd read with Ms. Clayton said she'd scoured old newspapers and magazines for historical tidbits to include in the book. How exciting! I thought.

Well... I have to say that the beginning of The Wednesday Sisters: A Novel really didn't meet my expectations at all. I found the first third of it quite dull. The characters all seemed stereotypical and flat to me. And it seemed like the story was dragging and almost nothing was happening! I pushed on, thinking a big part of it was that I just couldn't relate to these women. They admitted that they had put their dreams on hold, or permanently curtailed them, to marry their husbands, and their lives revolved around their children. It's not that I didn't want to read a book about housewives, but I think that many housewives, in real life and in books, are awesome. Many have confidence, charisma, interests and hobbies. But these women were so self-defacing that it was annoying. The main character, Frankie, tells the entire story, and she's always saying things like, "I can't imagine that I could actually write a book... I'd like to, but I'm no good, and what would these other women think?" We're not talking about writing a masterpiece novel here, or publishing, just writing in general. I wanted to scream at her, it's not that hard, just get a little self-esteem and try it! I really didn't understand the big deal.

Knowing the author's background, and that she was both a lawyer and a mother, I started thinking that maybe the problem was that she was writing what she didn't know, and it didn't seem real. But even the historical parts weren't that interesting in the first third of the book. The characters were on the outskirts of society, seemingly purposefully left out from everything exciting that was going on. They would see feminist protests on the news, but not attend. (Then Frankie would couch the events by saying something like, "We didn't know what to think of these crazy women on TV... we are just little stay at home moms who don't know anything about the world." Honestly, if I were a housewife I would be offended at the way that women in my profession/position were portrayed by the characters in the book!) Then there would be tidbits of history dropped in all too conveniently, like, "we read in the news that this happened..."(couched by Frankie in terms of "not that we understand what it all means, of course"), which to me isn't all that exciting. It's like too much historical data was given without the main characters really being a part of the context.

I kept reading The Wednesday Sisters since I had had such high hopes. Towards the middle, the book started to get better. And then the last third turned into a pretty good read. I think it's because the characters were actually doing something, making decisions instead of letting life just happen to them. For the first time, some of them seemed like separate characters, instead of all being lumped into one stereotypical housewife. (Some of them still fell flat to me even during the exciting parts). And they also went out into the real world and took part in some of the historical goings-ons, which made the historical parts a lot more interesting.

In the end, I think that the best parts of The Wednesday Sisters make for kind of a stereotypical chick-lit-for-mature-chicks read. Like, ladies that belong to knit clubs and church socials would probably like some of this book. But I bet even they'd be bored with a lot of it. It just doesn't go anywhere, or do anything, until near the end, and I don't know if a lot of people would hang on that long! I hate to give negative reviews, so I'll throw in something positive and say that this book has a lot of interesting parts about writing and the writing process, and it includes some good quotes and tips from famous writers. But even that part is annoying, because one of the women, Bret, will say things like, "Well, you know, Mark Twain always said..." at the beginning of their writing groups, causing Frankie to must out loud "How does Bret have such a good memory and always remember what all these great writers said?" Still, The Wednesday Sisters has some appeal for writers, so I recommend it, with reservations, to other writers. For this reason I give it two stars.