Tag Archives: American novels

A Walk On The Wild Side, by Nelson Algren

3.5 stars3.5/5

When Lou Reed referenced Nelson Algren’s 1957 novel, A Walk on the Wild Side, he borrowed more than the title.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc, 1998 reprint edition, paperback, 368 pages - book group choice.

Like Algren, Reed created lyrical portraits of people whose life was all about the next hustle. Algren painted a picture of lost souls in 1930’s New Orleans, Reed, those of 1970’s New York. Reed’s lines about transvestites and giving head are no more shocking than Algren’s condom-creating ‘wulcanized woman’ and no less depressing than his character Old Dockery’s ‘hundred dolls’.What they also have in common is a way of making the seedier side of life sound romantic by using a poetic narrative.

When Sakura chose Algren’s novel for our monthly book group (her thoughts are here by the way),I was surprised at how I’d never heard of this book that has been considered modern classic. While I was easily able to get myself a scruffy 1st edition on eBay for a few quid, I noticed it wasn’t exactly a best seller on Amazon or widely in print. What has caused A Walk on the Wild Side to fall out of favour? Published in the 50’s, this story of hapless hookers and the hopeless fortune-seeking hick Dove Linkhorn must have pushed the boundaries of good-taste and even now is quite shocking. It’s a really vivid snapshot of what life could have been like for people on the edge of society and explores themes of racism and class with some eloquence – the American dream turned inside-out where lonely wanderers struggle to make their way but without family or sufficient education are doomed to fail.

At the French Market, Dove, one of the key characters in the novel, watches turtles being killed for soup:

“When his eyes had got used to the deep-sea light he discerned a Negro the size of Carnera, naked to the waist and shining with iron-coloured sweat, decapitating snapping turtles with silvered precision.”

He watches one headless turtle, desperate to make it to the top of the pile finally make it and then skid straight back down in a bloody mess. Even for the luckiest characters in the book life is the same – a blind struggle and an easy descent.

Although the themes of the novel strike a blue note, Algren’s writing is darkly comic with scenes such as the one where Mama Floralee chases a naval officer around to indulge his repressed desire towards his childhood maid – a passage both tragic and funny.

One member of our group commented that it could be that the style of the book, has helped it to become more obscure in what is arguably a time of more plot-driven novels. In 350 odd pages A Walk on the Wild Side explores a multitude of characters, which can be disorientating. It isn’t structured in a neat and orderly way and this rather mirrors the haphazard lives of those featured in it. However, although A Walk on the Wild Side took a little bit of getting into, I’m really pleased that I read it. The indulgent use of metaphor and occasionally distracting diversions into the past of different characters was at times confusing but the use of language is inventive, quite beautiful in fact – and the characters were described in fascinating detail.

A Walk on the Wild Side is one to read you’re not in a rush and want to read the grittier version of the American Dream.

Am I the only person that hasn’t heard of Algren? Have you come across his writing before or read any of his novels?

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

After reading The Book Whisperer’s glowing review of The Help by Kathryn Stockett I knew that I had to get my hands on a copy and sure enough I was lucky enough to spot it on the new arrivals shelf at my local library. Joy!

The Help, is set in the early 60’s in Jackson, Missisippi where black maids raise white children but aren’t trusted not to steal the silver. The story is told from three perspectives starting with the voice of warm-hearted Aibileen who is maid to the Leefolt family and takes more care of their little girl than the mother, Elizabeth ever does. Then there is Minny, an excellent cook with a sharp tongue which gets her into trouble and adds a good deal of humour to the story. Finally Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, is a 22 year old aspiring writer whose unlikely relationship with Aibleen and Minny begins after she gets a job at the local newspaper writing a weekly cleaning column.

I loved reading The Help. While I didn’t want to put it down, I also found myself taking my time with it because I simply didn’t want it to end! I found myself smirking at Minny’s bad behaviour, gaping open-mouthed at the hideous behavour of the maid’s employers, and I had to try very hard not to cry in some of the more moving moments.

The charactarisation in the book is fantastic. Because of the first person narrative, I really felt that I got to know Aibleen, Minny and Skeeter and I was impressed with the authenticity of their voices. I also appreciated that Stockett took the effort to give a little bit of background at the end of the novel about where the book came from and how she struggled with representing the voices of black maids in the 60’s. It confirmed for me that The Help was a truly heartfelt novel.

Stockett uses lots of historical and cultural references to give context to the situation. For me these gave a real sense of how the town of Jackson was so unmoving in an era of change. This became particulary acute when the backward views of the inhabitants of the town are put into the context of a country that was about to put a man on the moon!

The Help, is an absolutely wonderful story of friendship and bravery which tackles the subject of racism from a totally new perspective. The heavy and light-hearted moments are perfectly balanced and Stockett conveys tragedy with subtlety. This book made me want to sit around the kitchen table with Aibileen, Minny and Skeeter, while reminding me how glad I am to be living in an era where racial attidutes have changed so much. I’m certain that this will be one of my favourite books of 2010.

My Rating:

9 out of 10

Savidge Reads has also reviewed The Help here, and you can read an interview with the author over at The Book Whisperer’s blog.

What books have you read lately that really moved you?

Peyton Place by Grace Metalious

peyton place - grace metaliousI would never have even thought of reading this book if it hadn’t been for Simon of Savidge Reads, who having heard great things about it, suggested we read it together for a bit of a rogue book read while on our woodland weekend away.

Peyton Place (although recently re-printed with this lovely cover by Virago Books), was actually published way back in 1956. I think it must be a generational thing,  because although I had never heard of it,my Dad mentioned that there was a TV series of the same name which was popular in the 1960’s. It was also made into a film not long after the book was published in 1957 which I need to get my hands on!

Peyton Place is a fictional New England town ‘book-ended’ by two churches of different Christan denominations. It seems an idyllic sort of place with an orderly main street and a host of respectable-seeming residents. As their intimate lives are revealed, this facade is peeled away to reveal some of the nastiest aspects of human behaviour.

From the cover of my rather well thumbed copy (below), I could have been forgiven for thinking Peyton Placewas pulp fiction.

The first lines of the book hint at drama;

“Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle, she comes and goes as she pleases so that one is never sure whether she will come at all, nor for how long she will stay.”

And even some of the books advertised in the back of this copy sound like totally (probably fabulous) trashy bodice-rippers of novels. But to focus only on the sensationalist angle of this book sells it short. It is sensational and shocking – I was surprised at just how shocking – however it is also beautifully written, emotive and clever. I can’t help but love Metalious even more after reading in a Wikipedia article that she is reported to have said;

“If I’m a lousy writer, then an awful lot of people have lousy taste,”

I can’t agree more. Over the course of nearly 500 pages, she weaves an elaborate story of lives tortured by past mistakes, and present-day crimes of the home. We are let into the lives of children who are discovering sex and also adults who rediscover a passion that they thought they had lost. The characters are wonderfully brought to life – I felt that I was really going on a journey with them. There is also a serious commentary on the acute differences between the well-to-do people of Peyton Place and the ‘shack-dwellers’ on the outskirts of town. Metalious poignantly highlights how drastically where a person is born can impacttheir opportunities and experiences in life.

I loved the character of Selena, a tough, streetwise girl from the shacks, and giggled inwardly at the innocent decisiveness of Allison Mackenzie. She goes from being determined to be the only girl in the world not to get her period to having dreams of becoming a writer who lives in the city and has affairs left, right and centre. I also developed quite a crush on Michael Kyros, the handsome new school principle who stirs things up when he moves to Peyton Place from New York.

I don’t want reveal too much of the storyline of Peyton Place, because I really enjoyed watching the skeletons pop out of people’s closets one by one. I’ll just sum up by saying that this is truly one of the best, most enjoyable books that I have read.

My rating:

10 out of 10.