Welcome to Triple Choice Tuesday. This is where I ask some of my favourite bloggers, writers and readers to share the names of three books that mean a lot to them. The idea is that it might raise the profile of certain books and introduce you to new titles, new authors and new bloggers.
Cathy is based in Northern Ireland, where she works as an arts programmer at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy.
Her blog chronicles her efforts to whittle down her To Be Read pile, which totalled 746 books when she started (hence the name). She’s passionate about Irish literature and hosts the annual Reading Ireland Month in March.
Without further ado, here are Cathy’s choices:
In 1997, I quit my job and headed off to the States with my best friend to travel for six months. First stop? San Francisco. My work colleagues clubbed together to give me a leaving present of cold hard dollars and a copy of Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin. This started a love affair with the complicated, hilarious and emotional lives of a motley group of characters living in 28 Barbary Lane under the support and love of their landlady, Anna Madrigal.
Set in 1970s San Francisco, the story is told through the eyes of Mary-Ann Singleton, the naïve and innocent Mid-Western secretary who has come to start a new life in a new city. Renting a room in Barbary Lane, she meets Michael ‘Mouse’ Tolliver, the first gay man she has ever encountered; the tough but vulnerable Mona and the beating heart of them all, the non-conforming, pot-smoking Anna Madrigal.
This multi-plot narrative follows their complicated lives through a maze of sex, drugs and longing. The narratives can at times seem far-fetched, featuring serial killers, kidnappings, cults and whore houses, but Maupin always returns to the relationships between his characters, focusing on the nature of family and the pain of human frailty and the cost of emotional freedom.
The Tales of the City series became a real treat read for me. I would save starting a new one until I was sure I had the time to fully enjoy the experience. Over the past 20 years I’ve read and loved the full series – Tales of the City, More Tales of the City, Further Tales of the City, Babycakes, Significant Others and Sure of You. Maupin’s following trilogy, Michael Tolliver Lives, Mary Ann in Autumn and finally The Days of Anna Madrigal are a fitting end to a wonderful collection, although I have to admit that despite being bought The Days of Anna Madrigal last Christmas by my husband, I have yet to read it. I’m not ready to say goodbye to the gang just yet.
In my second year at university studying English, I impulsively took a course on Novels of the American South. Focusing mainly on Faulkner, the course also looked at the work of Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and I can safely say that McCullers changed my view completely about what women writers could be and could write about.
Looking back at my literary education up to that point, I can see that the majority of the set texts had been by men. At school, we read Wuthering Heights and that was about it. In a module on the Contemporary British Novel, all texts were by men. Carson McCullers’ The Ballad of the Sad Café (and the equally wonderful The Heart is a Lonely Hunter), opened up a world of writers to me and took my reading in new and wonderful directions.
Miss Amelia Evans, tall, foreboding and fiercely independent runs a small-town store. She has always looked after herself, bar a disastrous ten-day marriage but when a hunchback cousin, Lymon, appears from nowhere, Amelia opens her heart and her doors, transforming her store into a popular café where the locals come to meet. Lymon has a strange hold on Amelia and any chance of happiness between them is doomed, when Marvin Macy, Amelia’s ex-husband returns from jail to create a bizarre love triangle destined to bring violence, betrayal and pain.
The Ballad of the Sad Café is a moving meditation on love told through clear, poetic prose. Through this southern Gothic tale of misfits and eccentrics, McCullers creates a mythic tapestry of life, exploring themes of isolation – the isolation of the individual and the shared isolation of a community; the value of life and the pain of unreciprocated love.
But though the outward facts of this love are indeed sad and ridiculous, it must be remembered that the real story was that which took place in the soul of the lover himself. So who but God can be the final judge of this or any other love?
In McCullers writing I always sense an acute awareness of the folly of the human condition and this is most pronounced in The Ballad of the Sad Café, which, despite the foreshadowing and sense of impending disaster still produces an ending with the ability to shock, a mystery to ponder and a coda to give hope.
You must always look with both of your eyes and listen with both of your ears. He says this is a very big world and there are many many things you could miss if you are not careful. There are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are. If nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?
Seamus Heaney has a lovely phrase in his collection Seeing Things, where he tries to ‘credit marvels’. Jon McGregor does the same thing is this beautiful, subtle book that tells the story of one street, a street where life is happening in all its minutiae. In this street, an ordinary street, a multiplicity of stories are being acted out and those stories connect and influence each other, often without knowing it. If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things isn’t so much about anything as about everything.
In some ways it reminds me a little of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (high praise, I know!) as it charts the emotional moments that can bring a seismic shift in a life. It is a poetic novel, slow-moving, emotional and affecting.
If you listen, you can hear it.
The city, it sings.
If you stand quietly, at the foot of a garden, in the middle of the street, on the roof of a house.
It’s clearest at night, when the sound cuts more sharply across the surface of things, when the song reaches out to a place inside you.
It’s a wordless song, for the most, but it’s a song all the same, and nobody hearing it could doubt what it sings. And the song sings the loudest when you pick out each note
It almost feels like a modest book, a book that focuses on the note and not the song, but by exploring on the seemingly mundane, McGregor succeeds in illuminating the mystical.
Thank you, Cathy, for taking part in my Triple Choice Tuesday!
I remember loving the Tales of the City mini-series when it was screened on Australian TV in the mid-1990s, but I’ve not read the book. Nor have I read Ballad of the Sad Cafe, although I have read (and loved) Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. And Jon McGregor’s novel has been sitting in my TBR for several years: time for me to bump it up the pile by the sound of things.
What do you think of Cathy’s choices? Have you read any of these books?