Sunday, October 07, 2007


The next three posts will cover other books I read which were published in 1951. These include authors whose full oeuvre I am working through (such as Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, etc) as well as books I simply came across in browsing. Finally, I am also covering books that won the major literary awards.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, The Novels and Stories of Carson McCullers, Carson McCullers, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1951, 791 pp

This is a collection of most of the pieces of Carson McCullers' work. It includes:
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, a long story, very dark yet moving. A strong manly woman and a male dwarf with a hunchback live in a sort of co-dependant relationship. It all ends badly and reminded me of a scene from Dickens' Great Expectations.

Six short stories: The Jockey, Madame Zilensky and the King of Finland, The Sojourner, A Domestic Dilemma, A Tree-A Rock-A Cloud. In every story the characters are odd and eccentric, the way most people are inside. McCullers always delves for what goes on inside.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I remembered reading this in high school and thinking it was the saddest story I ever read. It is about how most people are basically alone but trying to connect somehow. Mick, the teenage girl and Singer, the deaf mute are the characters I remembered but in this re-reading I found Dr Copeland, the negro doctor; Jake, the crazy commie; and Mr Brannon, who owns the all-night restaurant. Each in his own way was watching out for Mick.

Reflections in A Golden Eye. Way dysfunctional people: army guys, their wives, infidelity and one crazed young soldier who reminded me of a guy in a Flannery O'Conner book.

The Member of the Wedding. I liked this one the best. Frankie, a 12 year old girl, wants to be part of a wedding just so she can feel included. The story evokes what it is really like to be 12 in the summer.

What I found in this collection was a complete dearth of hope, excruciatingly accurate descriptions of southern summer heat, the human heart and its sufferings exposed and raw. Powerful writing, powerful emotional effect, like Faulkner, et al.

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury, Doubleday & Company, 1951, 253 pp

The illustrated man is an out of work side-show performer who is covered with tattoos. These tattoos are works of art but at night they also move and tell stories that predict the future. The Illustrated Man is a collection of those stories.

The stories are all futuristic, though some take place on earth, some on other planets. There are stories about nuclear war, racism, rockets, time travel and space travel. Most of the stories had been published earlier in magazines and the pulps. But aside from the theme of the future, the variety made for a book that did not come together as well as I, Robot or The Martian Chronicles.

However, one other integrating feature was that the author is unmistakably Ray Bradbury. The oddity, the slightly creepy feeling, side by side with the humanitarian concerns, are what I have come to expect from this author. He does not really bother with modern or futuristic technology but thru his imagination works out all kinds of frightening present and future prospects.

This Was the Old Chief's Country, Doris Lessing, Thomas Y Crowell, 1952, 175 pp

This was Doris Lessing's first story collection. Since it was published in England in 1951, I read it for that year. I actually had to get a later collection, African Stories, in which I found the 10 stories that were originally in This Was the Old Chief's Country, which may be out of print.

The country of the title was Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) when Doris Lessing was writing the stories. She was born and raised there and her writing so excellently evokes that area that the reader feels she is there. The stories include racial issues but also deal with the social conflicts of the whites who farmed the land. Her accounts of the interaction between white landowners and the natives who worked for them are the work of someone who lived through those times and grew up to be miraculously free of racism. She clearly loves the land and ALL of its people.

One other thing I must say about Lessing's writing at this early stage of her long career, is that it is wonderfully good. As I read these stories, I was not even aware of the writing. I was just there and living the story along with the characters. How she did that, I have no idea.

Hangsaman, Shirley Jackson, Farrar Straus and Young Inc, 1951, 280 pp

Shirley Jackson is best known for her short story, The Lottery, which can be found in many short story collections and on college English reading lists. Hangsaman is her second novel and just the title is a bit creepy. The book is much more than creepy.

Natalie Waite is seventeen and setting off for college. Her father is a writer and she has a close but not fully comfortable relationship with him. Her mother is unhappy in her marriage; she cooks and drinks and likes to warn Natalie about the horrors of marriage for a woman.

Natalie herself lives mostly in a dream world where she creates stories about herself. She does not blend in at college. Her freshman experience is eerily similar to that of Lee Fiora in Curtis Sittenfeld's Prep which I read just three weeks before I read this novel. It is also vaguely similar to my freshman year. I was not as emotionally maladjusted as Natalie, but I surely was confused and unhappy.

As the story moves along, it gets more and more creepy. I thought that Natalie was going crazy and it would end in her suicide. But it does not. She comes out of it in a sort of female hero state. Not an outward hero, but an inner one who conquers demons. This was a very satisfying book and something new. Only so far has Simone deBeauvoir written this much truth about female life.

Foundation, Isaac Asimov, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 200 pp

OK, I read this once before but I didn't really get it, although I could tell it was good. Now I have learned that this book was compiled from stories he wrote in the 1940s for "Astounding Science Fiction". For the book, he wrote an intro chapter describing the psychohistorians and tweaked some of the stories to make them flow.

There was a Galactic Empire, it got bloated and complacent, it died. Hari Seldon, the original psychohistorian, used advanced math to predict the future. He wrangled a deal with the Empire in its dying days that would keep knowledge safe and made a plan that would shorten the inevitable dark ages after the Empire expired.

Each chapter deals with a moment of crisis, called a "Seldon Crisis", when certain individuals could see what needed to be done to move things along. The coolest thing was that it was never the established psychohistorians who could see what to do but some upstart guy who by chance also knew his psychohistory.

I really liked the book this time. I learned from Asimov's autobiography that he got his ideas for this series by reading Gibbons' Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire three times as he was growing up. Wow!

The Tentmaker, Julius Berstl, Rinehart & Co Inc, 1951, 312 pp

This is a story of the early life of St Paul. It depicts Paul as a high-strung, spiritual seeker born into a materialistic family. I got this book for free at a closing of a used bookstore in Burbank, CA, several years ago. It sat on my shelf and entered into the list of books for 1951. It is a translation from German.

I had to put the book down for a couple months in the middle of reading it. It was either the author's style or was intentional in conveying Paul's character, but it is so intense, Paul is so tormented and this goes on almost to the end of the book, that it was quite heavy reading. But good. It provoked in me many thoughts about seeking spiritual truth and freedom.

Poor Cousin Evelyn, James Yaffe, Little Brown and Company, 1951, 269 pp

I read this a few years ago when I was on a reading plan to take the first book in the fiction section of the library from each letter of the alphabet. I read some very odd books, some bad books and quite a few interesting books that I would otherwise have never come across. This was the first book I ever read, since I started keeping records, by an author whose last name started with Y. Since it was published in 1951, it made it onto the list.

These are short stories about Jews on New York City's West Side in the 1940s. How else would a girl like me learn anything about this except by reading a book? Good preparation for Amos Oz, Saul Bellow and others. Yaffe is a fine storyteller who writes about great characters and life truths.

Tracy's Tiger, William Saroyan, Doubleday & Company Inc, 1951, 143 pp

Thomas Tracy has an imaginary tiger that is really a black panther. Tracy falls in love with a girl but scares her off with his passion. Somehow the tiger becomes visible, is mistaken for an escaped zoo is really a silly story that is more like a dream. It ends happily.

But Saroyan gets to make fun of psychiatrists, newspaper reporters, policemen and the gullible common people. It is a kind of modern day fairy tale, quite short, with illustrations. The writing is not great, except here and there. Yet, Tracy is a good hero and love conquers all.

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