Classics Club Spin #22: A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor

Oh my goodness, how do I write about this short story collection? I feel enormous trepidation as I begin this post. This book is just really freakin’ weird. 😃 And dark. And twisted. And brilliant. But I was relieved to finish it, so what does that say?

Ten stories filled with mean people, ignorant people, unwanted visitors, negligent parents, gossips, hypocrites, killers, racists, xenophobes… sounds like a swell way to spend your reading time, right? Yet when I entered into each story (one a day, that’s all I could take) I couldn’t pry my eyeballs from it. The characters, despicable though they might be, were so fully realized and the stories so well constructed that I was hooked.

The collection starts with the title story, and it’s a shocker. A family of four and the grandmother are traveling to a Florida on a road trip, with the grandkids sassing off to their racist, annoying grandmother constantly, until she tricks the whole family into driving down this dirt road so they can see an old abandoned plantation that she “remembered.” (She gets the kids excited about it by craftily telling them that there is a legendary secret panel in a wall in which the family silver was kept.) When a chance accident happens on the deserted road and a band of sketchy dudes comes along on the scene, all hell breaks loose. It’s an eye-opening way to start off, to say the least.

Some of the stories are a bit more sedate but no less compelling. My favorite story was “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,”which features a precocious, mischievous young girl putting up with a weekend visit from her boy-crazy, older second cousins, Susan and Joanne. There’s a traveling fair in town, and two local boys are enlisted to take the girls and get them out of the house for an evening. The title of the story comes from an anecdote that the girls laughingly tell at dinner about part of their Catholic school education.

— if he should “behave in an ungentlemanly manner with them in the back of an automobile.” Sister Perpetua said they were to say, “Stop, sir! I am a Temple of the Holy Ghost!” and that would put an end to it.

When the girls come back from the fair they obliquely tell the child (we don’t learn her name) about something they saw in the “freak tent” that unnerved them.

The tent where it was had been divided into two parts by a black curtain, one side for men and one for women. The freak went from one side to the other, talking first to the men and then to the women, but everyone could hear. The stage ran all the way across the front. The girls heard the freak say to the men, “I’m going to show you this and if you laugh, God may strike you the same way.” The freak had a country voice, slow and nasal, and neither high nor low, just flat. “God made me thisaway and if you laugh He may strike you the same way. This is the way He wanted me to be and I ain’t disputing His way. I’m showing you because I got to make the best of it. I expect you to act like ladies and gentlemen. I never done it to myself nor had a thing to do with it but I’m making the best of it. I don’t dispute hit.” Then there was a long silence on the other side of the tent and finally the freak left the men and came over to the women’s side and said the same thing.

The girls explain that the “freak” was both man and woman but the child doesn’t understand what that means. She later has a vision as she goes to sleep that the “freak” was leading a church service and says they are a “Temple of the Holy Ghost.” Still later in church she again thinks of the “freak” and how they said that this was how God wanted them to be. It’s a quiet, oddly beautiful story, and I loved how the child could embody a kindness and acceptance towards the “freak” that the rest of the characters couldn’t seem to muster.

I’m glad I read this and glad that the Classics Club Spin landed on this selection. I know it’s a hard sell, but I do think this is worth the read. I have all sorts of questions about what O’Connor was like, why she wrote such dark, religious, tense stories. This is the kind of book I would love to have discussed in a classroom setting because I know that I’m missing some nuances and symbolism along the way. I rated it five stars on Goodreads but it’s not one I can call a favorite, simply because I am confident that I will never be inclined to read it again. If anyone has any biographical knowledge of O’Connor or thoughts about any of these stories, I’d love to hear them!

Format: Library paperback, 252 pages.

See my original Classics Club list here.

BRL Best Books of 2019

Here they are – my favorite books of 2019 (note: I read a lot of backlist titles so they’re not all published this year.) Overall I seemed to have less 5-star reads this year than last year, but plenty of 4-star reads. Let’s get to it (in no particular order:)

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (2008.) Strout has emerged as one of my favorite writers. I’d been meaning to read this for years and I’m so glad I did. Gut-wrenchingly beautiful writing.

The F*ck It Diet by Caroline Dooner (2019.) I haven’t written a lot about this but this has been a year of positive changes for me in terms of my body image, weight, health, all that stuff. This is the book that got the ball rolling for me, and it’s funny, smart, relatable, engaging. I love the author’s Instagram feed as well. She’s a hoot. If you’re interested in Health at Every Size or have issues with food and exercise I highly recommend this book.

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths (2019.) Smart, atmospheric modern-day Gothic mystery. Loved it!

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951.) Brilliant, suspenseful, masterful novel with a heck of an ending. Who exactly was the manipulator in this novel? I’d read this again in a heartbeat.

March:Book Three by John Lewis (2016.) The last in a graphic memoir set that just blew me away. I feel like I learned more about the Civil Rights movement in 1960’s America from this three-volume set than I did in all my history classes. The artwork provides a visceral wallop that drives home how violent and dangerous the struggle for rights was. This set also made me realize what a hero Representative John Lewis is.

The Nickel Boys by a Colson Whitehead (2019.) I thought Whitehead’s last book, The Underground Railroad, was a masterpiece, but he did it again with his next book! In spare prose he focuses on two teenaged black boys in Florida in the 1960’s. They become friends at a reform school for “delinquent ” youth, mostly black kids who were petty criminals or just unwanted kids. He could have wallowed in the horror these boys faced but he didn’t, and I’m grateful. He didn’t waste one word in depicting the injustice and harsh circumstances these young men faced, but instead shined a light onto what was a real situation for hundreds of boys in a real life school like this in Florida. Very moving without being manipulative.

The Lager Queen by J. Ryan Stradal (2019.) This book just went straight to my heart. I don’t even like beer.

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain (2019.) I’m grateful that I read this because it’s given my family our Tech-Free Sunday time, where we put down our devices and just hang out with one another. We look forward to this time, even my video-game-obsessed 8 year-old. A very good, very short book about the benefits of unplugging one day a week.

In the Woods by Tana French (2008.) So atmospheric! So intricate and haunting. I got lost in this book. I don’t know why it took me so long to try French.

Over the Top by Jonathan Van Ness (2019.) A very brave memoir from a very open and brave man. So good!

A18h+5O2G3LHonorable Mention: Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore (2019.) Historical romance that’s super-smart and well-written. Didn’t tempt me to roll my eyes even once. Great characters and plot, and just enough steaminess to be fun but not annoying. Can’t wait to read her next one.

I like my range of styles here – two self-help books, a contemporary fiction, two mysteries, a graphic memoir and a regular memoir, two literary fiction titles, a classic, and a romance! No one can accuse me of a narrow reading life. I hope your 2019 reading lives were big and wide and full of five-star reads.

Over the Top: A Raw Journey to Self-Love by Jonathan Van Ness

I may have mentioned before that I love the Netflix series Queer Eye. LOVE IT. It’s a balm for the weary 21st-century soul. Five adorable, kind gay men meet a person who is stuck somehow in their life… mentally, physically, emotionally, sometimes all three… and, with great compassion, help them break out of their funk and start to go after their dreams again. It’s just lovely and practically every episode makes me cry happy tears. It’s hard to pick a “favorite “of the Fab Five, but if I had to it would be Jonathan Van Ness. He is the hair and skin “expert” but like all the guys he has many more layers.img_4998

Little did I know just how many layers he has until I read his new memoir, Over the Top. Wow. He really lays his life out there for the reader and I find it so brave to be that vulnerable.

When people had asked me whether I was ready for my life to change, I don’t think I really understood what they meant. It wasn’t just that strangers would know who I was. It was this other thing that started to happen to me: when I looked in their eyes, sometimes, there was a little voice in my head wondering, Would you still be so excited to meet me if you really knew who I was? If you knew all the things I’d done? If you could see all my parts?

Over the course of the memoir we see how childhood sexual abuse and growing up gay in a small, conservative Midwestern town affected his life. Despite a loving, pretty accepting family, they didn’t seem to have the emotional tools to deal effectively or help Jonathan deal effectively with his own pain and anxiety. Young Jonathan turned to food and imagined skating and gymnastics routines to escape his complicated emotions.

From the outside, my carpet-skating routines were not actually quite as major as they felt inside my head, but they gave me something so important. Choreographing routines on my own in the basement for hours on end gave my imagination a place to roam free. Nobody was there to tell me how to move my body or what music was right for me to listen to. I could daydream about how if I nailed this short program I’d be heading into the long program in second place and could lock down my spot on the Olympic team. Being able to entertain yourself is a valuable skill, especially if you’re in a prolonged dark space. (For me, that was Quincy.) Maybe that’s dramatic, and maybe I’m too sensitive, but there wasn’t much naturally occurring joy in that era for me, so it was up to me to make my own. Especially being such a soft, round kid – who wanted to be a fit, sporty one – dancing made me feel graceful. It gave me a freedom I didn’t have anywhere else.

Later, Jonathan would develop an addiction to drugs that proved very hard to kick, as well as a sexual addiction. He delves into some very dark times in his life with amazing honesty, including the period of his life that he was a male prostitute. Reading this I felt amazed that he’s still alive considering all the risky and dangerous positions he put himself in. It’s a real testament to his family and to his spirit that he persisted and fought for a better life for himself.

When you’re a survivor of abuse, living in chaos can be the most upsetting yet comforting thing in the word. It was for me.

I loved reading about how he got into the hair business and started turning his life around. The section where he worked at a very posh, high-pressure salon in L.A. was fascinating. It sounds like a hellish, toxic environment that I’d never want to work in but he came away with so many skills and a new confidence in his abilities.

His step-father’s illness and death, his own HIV diagnosis, his eventual introduction into show business and landing the part on Queer Eye, they’re all covered. This is a very open, brave book. He showed that he’s not just the sunny, ultra-positive person he often seems on the show. Those are real parts of him but also there is real trauma and messiness there too.

Over the years I’ve heard horror stories of celebrities being dicks to nice people, and I always thought that was horrifying – why wouldn’t you be nice to your fans? What did you think you were getting into? But what I’ve realized is that you can’t be the same version of yourself at all times. Maybe your kidney function test results came back weird, so you have to go back to the doctor and you’re worried, but you can’t explain that to the fan who just wants a selfie. Maybe you just held your thirteen-year-old cat in your arms as the took their last breath, but the group of people wanting a picture don’t care – they just want their bubbly JVN, and they want him right now. It’s been the honor of a lifetime to be held to this ideal, but what I really want to tell the people asking for photos is: I’m literally just as lost as you. And I’m just as much of a perfectly imperfect mess. People are layered- good and bad, filled with joy and sorrow. The key is being grounded in the relationship you have with yourself. Basing my worth in how I treat myself despite how others treat me has been the key to my success – and I want that for you too.

I really do feel like this book will help people. People with addiction and circumstances similar to Jonathan’s and people who just have your average insecurities and anxieties. It’s a fast read, engaging and at times funny with lots of Jonathan’s trademark phrases he uses (ferosh for ferocious, etc.) I loved this book. It’s a must-read if you’re a fan of the show and even if you’re not, it’s an entertaining and moving read. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

When Edith was feeling low like this, baking a pie had never failed to make her happy. Like how some people talk about yoga or mountain climbing or music, it was how she lost herself and touched something else. It was her church away from church. It wouldn’t solve any problems, but it might make her and a few people forget them for a while, and that was something.

She stocked up on ingredients at Cub Foods. She took out the last of the canned rhubarb from Lucy, and used the fancy lard from Block’s Provisions, that expensive and tiny store on Hennepin. She felt the dry flour between her fingers, and thought about being a great-grandmother. She thought about it like how a tree in winter thinks about its leaves. She rolled this thought over the dough, and pressed it into its edges. The sun fell outside, and she didn’t reach for the lights. The pie baked in the dark, and she sat in her quiet kitchen and waited. She was good at that. She was seventy-seven years old, and she had all the time in the world.

51a2My+6uGLI’ve found my leading contender so far for favorite book of the year. I know there’s a lot of year left, so I’m leaving the door open for something else to come in and touch me more than J. Ryan Stradal’s second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. But it had better be darn good, because I’d give this book more stars if Goodreads would let me.

Lager Queen is about sisters and pie, and yes, beer. It alternates points of view between three characters: sisters Edith and Helen, and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana. Helen is an unlikely sort of young woman in the 1960s, who figures out that she wants to make beer, and she knows she’d be good at it. Her older sister Edith is the settled one, the dependable one, the one who Helen says “putting cake frosting on a bran muffin” is her idea of fun. When their father gives all the money from the sale of the family farm to Helen to help start her beer making venture, Edith and her sister stop talking, and the silence only gets louder and louder over fifty years. Year later, Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, who Edith has to help finish raising after a terrible accident, exhibits both Helen’s fiery spirit and her grandmother’s practicality. But after getting caught making some very questionable choices, she is given a new opportunity to find something she’s good at, and it’s closer to her great-aunt’s path than she could ever guess.

This book just hummed with authentic characters and believable dialogue, two of my criteria for good fiction. J.Ryan Stradal has a gift for creating characters the reader cares about, people who aren’t perfect but are fully dimensional and whose actions are credible. And just like his first book, Kitchen of the Great Midwest (which I loved,) featured some killer foodie scenes, this one is filled with interesting and zingy writing about beer. I’m not a beer drinker but I almost wish I was reading these sentences.

The four examples of IPAs were meant to break Diana’s brain open about the possibilities of what an IPA can do, but these beers were too far beyond her comprehension.

Her first, second, and third impression of each IPA steamrolled her ignorant palate; drinking them was like losing a boxing match to become a better boxer. It’s unfair, she thought, that whatever the hell she’d made would be called beer, on a planet where these beers existed. They her feel terminally bewildered.

Other sentences I loved:

“Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places.”

“It was like a man to scratch his name on the banister of history, but Helen had come to believe that it was better to be the stairs.”

All three women go through a lot over the course of the book, which feels like real life too, with loss, disappointments, and victories big and small over the years. By the time the end comes around you can feel all the threads coming together, only you’re not sure if it’s all going to end the way you want it to. I’ll say this: it’s one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time, and I totally bawled. It’s the kind of book I’m tempted to immediately read again, but I can’t because it’s a library copy and people are waiting on it! And then I had the thought that I need to buy Kitchens of the Great Midwest and read that again. So I guess I’m a J. Ryan Stradal-head now. This is one of those books that I am sure I can’t do justice to in a review, so I’ll just say that I wholeheartedly loved it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

 

Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski

The introduction to Burnout reads: “This is a book for any woman who has felt overwhelmed and exhausted by everything she had to do, and yet still worried she was not doing ‘enough’.” Um, hello! The Nagoski sisters have been reading my mail.

A1+-unICxaLI loved this book. I need to own a copy to be able to flip through and underline and reread. There are so many good points in Burnout that I decided against writing a traditional review and simply share some quotations that meant the most to me instead. Here goes.

  • “Physical activity is what tells your brain you have successfully survived the threat and now your body is a safe place to live. Physical activity is the single most effective strategy for completing the stress response cycle.”
  • “To be ‘well’ is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.” 
  • “Meaning is not made by the terrible thing you experienced; it is made by the ways you survive.”
  • “At the heart of Human Giver Syndrome lies the deeply buried, unspoken assumption that women should give everything, every moment of their lives, every drop of energy, to the care of others. ‘Self-care’ is, indeed, selfish because it uses personal resources to promote a giver’s well-being, rather than someone else’s. “
  • “Feeling helpless and hopeless after watching news about the state of international politics? Don’t distract yourself or numb out; do a thing. Do yard work or gardening, to care for your small patch of the world. Take food to somebody who needs a little boost. Take your dog to the park. Show up at a Black Lives Matter march. You might even call your government representative. That’s great. That’s participation. You’re not helpless. Your goal is not to stabilize the government… your goal is to stabilize you, so that you can maintain a sense of efficacy, so that you can do the important stuff your family and your community needs from you.”
  • “Maybe you don’t look like you used to, or like you used to imagine you should; but how you look today is the new hotness. Even better than the old hotness. Wearing your new leggings today? You are the new hotness. Hair longer or short, or a different color or style? New hotness. Saggy belly from that baby you birthed? New hotness. Gained twenty pounds while finishing school? New hotness. Skin gets new wrinkles because you lived another year? New hotness. Scar tissue following knee replacement surgery? New hotness. Amputation following combat injury? New hotness. Mastectomy following breast cancer? New hotness. The point is, you define and redefine your body’s worth, on your own terms. Again and again, you turn towards your body with kindness and compassion.”
  • “Instead of just looking at your body to evaluate her well-being, turn to her and ask her how she feels: ‘What’s wrong, honey? Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Lonely?’ She can definitely tell you, if you listen. You might have to stop what you’re doing, take a slow breath, focus on the sensation of your weight on the floor or the chair, and actually ask out loud, ‘What do you need?'”
  • “Your body is not the enemy. The real enemy is out there – the Bikini Industrial Complex. It is trying sneakily to convince you that you are the problem, that your body is the enemy, that your body is inadequate, which makes you a failure.” 

What my body needs right now is to stop writing this post and get up and stretch – ha ha! Reading this book was like talking to a very wise, compassionate friend. The tone is so intimate and warm, but also pragmatic. Here’s the situation, and here’s what you can do about it. It’s the kind of book that can start to crack deeply ingrained thought patterns and let in some light and freshness to your stale habits. It’s also refreshing that it doesn’t put all the blame for this crap on the individual – it acknowledges the big societal and cultural structures and attitudes that contribute to our stress. I am so grateful I happened upon this book. If you are a woman who feels overwhelmed, run down, worn out, helpless, or like you need a boost of confidence, this is a book for you!

 

 

 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The capacity to suffer. Elwood – all the Nickel boys – existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. 

Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

71yP-dPa0mLIf a 225-page book takes me nine days to read, either I don’t like it or it’s really sad. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is decidedly sad. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t feel burdened by gratuitous descriptions of violence. Whitehead, mercifully,  writes sparingly but efficiently of the punishments given out by the mean-spirited men in charge of the fictional Nickel Academy. I just felt sad, heavy with the knowledge that these injustices happened to real boys in the 20th century at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, the inspiration for Nickel. Heavy with the weight of our continued struggle with racism in the U.S. At the same time, I relished Whitehead’s characterization of the two young heroes in this story, Elwood and Turner. He is a phenomenal writer – not an emotional one, but one who nonetheless has the capacity to move me greatly.

It’s the early 1960’s and Elwood and Turner, the book’s main characters, stand in for hundreds of boys, black and white, who endured horrible conditions at the real life Dozier School. (You can read more about it here.) The boys at Nickel were either wards of the state that no one was sure what to do with or they were there as punishment for a “crime.” Elwood, an enterprising, bookish young man, inspired by recordings his grandma bought him of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., starts the book as the least likely boy to end up at a place like Nickel. But he’s soon caught up in a tragic mishap that lands him in the nightmarish facility, where he meets Turner, a low-key, cynical, but streetwise teen who has no family and is on his second stint at the school. Turner takes Elwood under his wing after Elwood makes the mistake of letting his ideals guide him in the murky social structure at Nickel.

I absolutely fell in love with these two characters, especially Elwood. The way he continues to struggle throughout the novel to reconcile his ideals, the ideals Dr. King showed him, and the reality of his situation, all the adults and kids who weren’t playing by the rules of love and justice and a higher purpose, this is the heart of the book for me. I have read some reviews of Whitehead’s works that fault him for being detached or unemotional. I agree with that characterization but for me it’s a good thing. The things he writes about, especially his last two books, have been about so much sadness and violence that I want a level of detachment from the author – it helps me, a sensitive person, not get overwhelmed by the subject matter. I can focus on the beauty, strength,  and economy of the writing and, here, delight in the characters.

The Nickel Boys is an achievement, a testament to the hell that real life boys endured for most of the 20th century. I think Colson Whitehead is a genius who can write just about any kind of book he wants to and I love the range of his work. I know this kind of book isn’t an easy sell, especially for sensitive readers. But I highly recommend it – if I, known shunner of heavy books, can handle it, you most likely can too! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

In Mississippi that summer we suffered more than 1000 arrests, 80 beatings, 35 shootings, 35 church burnings, and 30 bombings. Doctors who evaluated volunteers returning home from Freedom Summer describes the symptoms of the emotional and physical toll as “battle fatigue,” marking a “crisis in the  lives of those youths who experience them.”

March: Book 3 is a marvel. I read Books 1 and 2 back in 2016 (review of Book 2 here) and loved them. They gave me a window into what it was like to put your body and life on the line for the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960s, how horrible the violence and hatred that met these young people was, and also gave me a new respect for what a true hero Representative John Lewis is.  I didn’t read the concluding volume when it came out because demand was high at my library and there were few copies. And then it got lost in the shuffle – you know how that goes. I’m so glad I chose to finally finish the series. Book 3 is another enlightening, moving gem, focusing specifically on the push for African Americans’ right to vote in the South, ultimately leading to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Opening with the horrific bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four little girls, the graphic memoir next explores the ways in which Southern whites prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote, through intimidation, literacy tests, threats to their jobs and homes, or any other whim that the local Registrar of Voters could come up with. Lewis’s work as leader of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) along with others like Fannie Lou Hamer and Bob Moses, coordinating marches, sit-ins, and protests across the Deep South to enforce voting rights was met at every turn with violence, intimidation, and police brutality.

The graphic novel format is the perfect medium to tell this story because it makes the violence and hatred feel so visceral and terrifying. Some brave young activists, white and black alike, were killed in the line of duty and their killers were never brought to justice. I hope this series is taught in high schools across America – until we truly know and confront our past we can’t hope to make progress against the deep strain of racism still alive and well in our country. I wish I had read something like this when I was in school so that I would have been aware of what the Civil Rights heroes were up against. These events seem far away sometimes, but my mother was a little girl when all of this occurred – it really wasn’t that long ago. Some people in power today were young people growing up steeped in the segregated culture of hate and violence.

The brutal, televised beatings of non-violent protesters on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on “Bloody Sunday,” John Lewis included, forced the rest of America to finally look at the brutality enforced by state and local governments in the South.  March portrays President Lyndon Johnson as a sympathetic, if at times halting and measured, ally of the cause. The political maneuverings of 1963-1965 were interesting but not as compelling as the stories of the activists fighting for justice on the streets. When we finally get to the end of the volume, back in the 2009 inauguration of President Obama, it feels bittersweet, knowing how many people who worked for equality didn’t make it to see that great day.

In short, this series is phenomenal and I highly recommend it, even if you don’t ever read graphic novels or graphic memoirs. What a gift this series is.

Have you read this series? What other histories, biographies, or memoirs of Civil Rights heroes would you recommend?