Review: A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor

 This short story collection was assigned in my Literature of the American South class this semester and, I’m saddened to say, Flannery O’Connor is the only woman writer we’re reading. This is incredibly disappointing, to say the least, although I will make up for it a bit by comparing the styles of Faulkner and Kate Chopin in my final paper. I have to say, though, that if it can only be one woman writer, I’m awfully glad it’s Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are right up my alley in a horrible, horrible way.

O’Connor was a staunch Catholic who believed that her stories were morality tales about grace, forgiveness, and the bounty of God. Which, I guess you could read in to certain stories if you tried really hard. But I think what’s even more obvious – and done much better by O’Connor – is the use of hypocrisy and irony to leave a lasting message/picture in the mind of the reader. There are 10 stories in this collection, and my class was assigned to read five of them. Of those five (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “The Life You Save may be Your Own”, “The Artificial Nigger”, “The Displaced Person” and “Good Country People”) the two that stick out the most as being especially worthy of comment – although all the stories are great – are “Good Country People and “The Artificial Nigger”.

“The Artificial Nigger” is the story of a young man, Nelson, and his first trip into the city with his grandfather, known only as Mr. Head (Nelson, however, swears that since he was born in the city, this is technically his second trip back). The two are undertaking the journey so that Mr. Head can, essentially, prove to Nelson that he doesn’t know as much as he’d like to belive he knows about being in the city. On the train on the way in to town, the two have a particularly telling conversation in which Nelson swears he could identify a “nigger” if he saw one but, when he sees an African American man, doesn’t seem to be able to make that association in reality. It’s a shining moment of the hypocrisy behind racism as brought out by O’Connor – hating someone for something genetically uncontrollable as a learned, not genetic, behavior. When the two are in the city, there is also a horrifying scene where, after leaving Nelson sleeping on the curb, Mr. Head watches as Nelson wakes up, panics, and takes off running. He soon careens into two women leaving the market and, when they begin to yell at him, Nelson looks for his grandfather. It’s then that Mr. Head denies that he knows Nelson at all, walking away until the whole thing calms down enough that Nelson is able to walk away after his grandfather. I was astounded to read about a grandfather deliberately and forcefully denying his relationship to his grandson, and foud it interesting to watch Nelson grow up in that moment, almost literally before the readers eyes. The “artificial nigger” of the title is a statue the two come across in the yard of a wealthier home in the city and, looking at the statue together, Mr. Head claims he is able to “feel the grace of God” and forgives himself his behavior.

“Good Country People” is a far different story, focused largely on issues of images and self-categorization. All throughout the story, the daugher Joy watches as her mother and their landlord rave on and on about the merits of “good country people”, the “salt of the earth”. Joy has changed her name to Hulga, gotten an advanced degree in philosophy, and become an athiest, all in an attempt to define herself as a not “good country person”, contrary to her mother’s desires. She searches for independance in these ways because, after being maimed as a child, she has a prosthetic leg and has severely limited mobility.  She feels superior based on her education, which gets her in to trouble when the charming and handsome Bible salesman Manley Pointer comes to the house. She views him as a social experiment, something she can manipulate. Before long, and much to the joy of Joy/Hulga’s mother, the two go on a walk one day in to the hayloft of an abandoned barn, where anticipated necking ensues. It doesn’t take long, though, before Manley’s true nature as a liar and collector of the strange and unususal makes itself known and he ends up running off with Joy/Hulga’s leg. That’s right. He steals her prosthetic leg. It’d be completely horrifying if it weren’t kind of funny at the same time. Needless to say, Joy/Hulga then has to struggel with a number of her preconcieved notions about herself, if she was silly enough to be tricked the way she was by a person presenting a completely false front.

All in all, I’d say that there was a lot more darkness than I was expecting out of Ms. O’Connor. Which is part of the reason that I liked it. It soon became a running theme in the class that “a good man is hard to find in O’Connor’s book, but shitty asshats are a dime a dozen”. Loosely paraphrasing, of course. O’Connor was often critically smashed for her overwhelming scenes of violence and darkness, and I have to say that there is no short supply of all this. It also is a bit incongruous with her suppposedly steadfast Christian beliefs. But, all that aside, there are real people with real flaws at the heart of Flannery’s work, and that’s what comes to the front of all the nitty-gritty. It’s not exactly light or humorous reading – not all the time, at least – but it’s worthwhile reading for sure.

Review: The Peach Keeper, Sarah Addison Allen

 I picked up The Peach Keeper on Friday because it was the first really, truly beautiful day of the spring and I needed a book that would bring that happy, sunshine-y outside feeling in to what I was reading. I mean, we’ve been having on and off nice days since the end of March, but Friday ended a week of cold (unseasonably so), rain, and gray days with some beautifully golden sunshine and clear blue skies! And nothing says beautiful spring weather like diving in to a book full of southern beauty,  magic, and hardcore girly romance/friendship. And The Peach Keeper had all that and more!

This was my first introduction to Sarah Addison Allen, but from what I’ve seen, it doesn’t surprise me at all that shes a favorite out there in the blogosphere! Walls-of-Water, the small southern town she creates, is one of environmental charm, buried secrets, and a little bit of that southern magic. It was a darling book, and totally fit the bill for that sweet little bite of a novel I was looking for!

The book tells the story of Paxton Osgood (btw, how awesome of a name is that?!) and Willa Jackson, decendants of the two most prominant families in the town of Walls-of-Water. Willa’s family once owned the Blue Ridge Madam, an antebellum estate on a hill just outside of town that stands as a monument to the weath that used to reside in the town in the middle of its logging hey-day, before her grandmother fell on hard financial times and a scandalous pregnancy. Paxton’s family has decided to restore the old house, and soon Willa and Paxton are thrown together in a way they never anticipated. Yes, they knew each other in high school. But they ran in different social circles, and were guilty of judging each other unfairly. But with the restoration of the property – and the discovery of a skeleton buried under an old peach tree – the two begin to learn more and more about one another, their town, and the intertwined history of their families. Along the way, they learn things they didn’t ever see coming, and it leads to a number of changes in both their lives. This is a great novel of friendship, love, and choosing to love the place you were born without feeling that you have to be defined by that place.

Before I continue gushing, I should probably mention that there were one or two snafus that popped up to me when I was reading. One was the character development throughout the novel. The characters are all wonderfully built, but after a while I felt that things got a bit repetitive. I also felt that there were a few diversions from the plot line (into the past, into the homes/lives of other neighbors, etc) that, while fun to read, didn’t necessarily do a lot for the plot as a whole.  In fact, there were times when I wished the book did a better job of incorporating the past – there’s only one chapter dedicated to the events that transpired between Willa’s grandmother and Paxton’s grandmother in the late 1930s, and I thought it would have  been a fantastic aspect of the story thats a bit missing.

These are, honestly, small problems in what was, all in all, a really fantastic read and exactly what I needed to usher in such a beautiful spring. My favorite parts of the novel were probably the small glimpses of magical realism that kept popping up throughout the novel – Tucker Devlin, a travelling salesmen whose bones are the ones discovered on the property, smells constantly of peaches, seems to weild control over local birds, and literally puts a spell over the ladies of Walls-of-Water in the 1930s. Throughout the novel, incidences of his magic pop up again and again, ususally in a way that even the people facing the magic don’t understand.

I was also enamored with the descriptions of the smalll southern town, both the town and houses as well as the national part that surrounds Walls-of-Water. There is something so extraordinarily charming about mid-atlantic south, and I’m pretty sure a large part of that has to do with the fact that my brother grew up there, lived there his entire life (there being South Carolina), and every time I visit him I want to leave less and less!

All in all, I’d say there really couldn’t be a better book for curling up with on a sun-baked couch, with a cup of coffee or perhaps that first sweet tea of the season! Although this review isn’t a part of the TLC blog tour, there is currently one underway for The Peach Keeper and I suggest you check out what other amazing blogs have to say about this gem of a novel. Fizzy Thoughts posted the most recent spot on the blog tour, and below is the calander of tour dates:

With the school year winding down (I’m on a bit of a break until actual-finals week, when I’ll have some papers I’ll be forced to crank out) I’m really having a great time reading at leisure and picking books to match both the weather and my mood – one of my favorite ways to read! Happy reading, and I’ll be back later this week – it’s a promise.

“She stood there for a moment, stunned. Just as she was about to turn, she caught a whiff of something sweet. She inhaled deeply, instinctively wanting to savor it, but then she nearly choked when it landed on her tongue with a bitter taste. It was so strong she actually made a face. That, her grandmother had described to her once after making a particularly bad lenom cream pie, was exactly what regret tasted like.”

“Why were girls in such a hurry to grow up? Agatha would never understand. Childhood was magical. Leaving it behind was a magnificent loss.”

“His father had been an alcoholic, so Sebastian spent every hour he could away from him. He would sit and this diner on the highway, the one his great-aunt used to take him to when he was a boy, the only place she could afford, and nurse a cup of coffee and read library books until he was too tired to stay awake.”

“One thing she did believe in was love. She believed that you could smell it, that you could taste it, that it could change the entire course of your life.”

Last but not least, for all the fellow coffee-lovers out there: “Coffee, she’d discovered, was tied to all sorts of memories, different for each person. Sunday mornings, friendly get-togethers, a favorite grandfather long since gone, the AA meeting that saved their life. Coffee meant somthing to people. Most found their lives were miserable without it. Coffee ws a lot like love that way.”