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

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. ūüėÉ 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.

Mini-reviews: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff and The Temporary Bride by Jennifer Klinec (#20BooksofSummer 10 & 11)

So I’ve been needing to write these two reviews foreva. ¬†What have I been doing so far tonight instead? ¬†Watching videos of the band Cheap Trick on YouTube! ¬†ūüėÄ It seems that my mom has hoodwinked me into going with her to see them play live in September at our area County Fair! ¬†Before my YouTube explorations, I knew three Cheap Trick songs: ¬†“I Want You to Want Me,” “Surrender,” and “The Flame.” ¬†So I guess I’m going to continue educating myself in preparation. ¬†I just didn’t want her going by herself, you know? ¬†And mercifully, it’s on a night that my husband has off, so he can care for our son.

25109947Now that I’ve had some caffeine and made myself sit down in front of my computer, let me tell you about Books 10 and 11 from my 20 Books of Summer List. ¬†(Actually, Book 11 wasn’t on either of my lists, so shhhh! ¬†Don’t tell anybody!) ¬†Book 10 is Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff. ¬†It was a pick chosen by my book group last month. ¬†I voted for it too, because it sounded promisingly weird and my fellow book group member who proposed it said that she loved it and no one else she knew had read it and she was dying to talk about it with people. ¬†How could we refuse?

Goodreads Blurb: The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George‚ÄĒpublisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide‚ÄĒand his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite‚ÄĒheir to the estate that owned Atticus‚Äôs great grandmother‚ÄĒthey encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn‚ÄĒled by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb‚ÄĒwhich has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his‚ÄĒand the whole Turner clan‚Äôs‚ÄĒdestruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism‚ÄĒthe terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today.¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†

Verdict: ¬†Three Stars. ¬†(Maybe 2.75, honestly.) ¬†I wanted to know why my book group mate liked this book so much, and oddly enough she praised the one thing that bothered me the most about this book: ¬†character development. ¬†I just didn’t really connect to or feel the authenticity of most of the characters in this novel. ¬†I like weird, fantastical story lines, and I am open to supernatural and creepy plot developments, which this book has in abundance. ¬†But I want my characters to feel real; I want to know enough about the inner workings of their minds to understand them. ¬†And I just didn’t get that from this book.

What I did like about this book was the use of fantasy and horror to illustrate historical (and current) racial injustice in America. ¬†For example, in one of the stories (oh yeah, this book is really a bunch of interrelated stories about a group of African Americans around Chicago in the 1950’s, not one long narrative, like I was anticipating…) ¬†a black woman named Ruby drinks a potion that transforms her into a white woman temporarily. ¬†As she inhabits this white body (which also happens to be beautiful) I loved reading her thoughts about the difference in how people treat her.

There was no side-eyeing, no pretending not to see her while wondering what she was up to; she didn’t require attention. ¬†She was free to browse, not just individual establishments, but the world.

What else comes with being you?

All in all, I’m glad I read it. ¬†It wasn’t something I was likely to seek out on my own, but I think I learned something about the sad, sometimes horrifying realities of daily life for African Americans in the 1950’s, even with all the supernatural story elements. ¬†I think that Ruff did the subject matter justice, even as I was a bit conflicted about this not being an Own Voices book. Our book group had a very fruitful discussion about it, and I think it’s a good choice for any group.

34296946Book 11 is The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec. ¬†As I’ve mentioned before, I’m half Persian, but I’ve never been to Iran and my father really didn’t talk very much about his (and my) heritage when I was growing up. ¬†So naturally I’m attracted to a book like this, which combines my interest in travel memoirs, food memoirs, and Iran. ¬†This was a quick read for me and I really enjoyed it. ¬†I loved getting a glimpse of other areas of Iran besides Tehran, a city that, understandably, seems to dominate books set in that country. ¬†But let me back up. ¬†Here’s the Goodreads blurb.

In her thirties, Jennifer Klinec abandons a corporate job to launch a cooking school from her London flat. Raised in Canada to Hungarian-Croatian parents, she has already travelled to countries most people are fearful of, in search of ancient recipes. Her quest leads her to Iran where, hair discreetly covered and eyes modest, she is introduced to a local woman who will teach her the secrets of the Persian kitchen.

Vahid is suspicious of the strange foreigner who turns up in his mother’s kitchen; he is unused to seeing an independent woman. But a compelling attraction pulls them together and then pits them against harsh Iranian laws and customs. 

Getting under the skin of one of the most complex and fascinating nations on earth, The Temporary Bride is a soaring story of being loved, being fed, and the struggle to belong.

Verdict: ¬†Four Stars. ¬†This was a lovely book. ¬†The food writing is lush and evocative, but the real center of the book is the unlikely romance between Klinec and the son of a woman who is teaching her how to cook Persian dishes. ¬†It’s a fascinating glimpse of a romantic relationship trying to develop in a country with strict and overbearing rules (both cultural and legal) governing contact between unrelated members of the opposite sex.

Every day Vahid wrote to me.  Brief e-mails, sometimes two or three in one day.  In between short sentences of concern for my well-being and expressions of tenderness, he put the craving for foods in my mouth.  He urged me to wait in the long lines outside the Mahdi ice-cream parlor, to eat their chewy ice cream made with orchid root and mastic that can stretch for several feet without breaking. He described the torshi shops in Bistodoh Bahman Square where vegetables, roots, even young pinecones are pickled, swimming in buckets of caraway seeds and vinegar.  I bought cauliflower, caper shoots and tiny turnips scooped into clear plastic bags and topped with a ladleful of sour brine.  He made it so that when I ate I heard his voice in my head, missing his presence from every meal.  I felt him beside me adding lemon juice and salt, or tapping sugar or crushing sumac between his fingers. 

If you’re a fan of food memoirs or an armchair traveler like me, you’ll probably enjoy this compelling story. ¬†My only slight criticism is that the events happen in such a compressed time frame (just a few months total, I think) that I wanted a bit more on exactly why Klinec fell so hard for Vahid, when everything in her logical mind and in the Iranian society was telling her that they shouldn’t be a couple. ¬†I also wanted more at the end of the book – it felt a bit rushed. ¬†Minor quibbles, though.

So, have you read any H.P. Lovecraft?  Have you read any good books about Iran?  Are you a fan of Cheap Trick?  Let me know in the comments.