Category Archives: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

By the way, last week I finished The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, and sadly it did not live up to my rather high expectations.

Perhaps it’s because I’m not from the South and have never lived in the South, but I couldn’t relate to many of the characters and their situations.

I found the book dreadfully sad and I though McCullers’s writing thoroughly impressive for a 23 year old author (at the time).

Anyway, I read this for a book club and will post more after our discussion.

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The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt

I finished my first book about positive psychology – Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E. P. Seligman – and am on to Jonathan Haidt‘s The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom.

I really enjoyed Authentic Happiness so I’m excited about The Happiness Hypothesis — and yes I’m still currently also reading Carson McCullers‘s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter; I’m just taking my time with it and reading other books at the same time.

Jonathan Haidt is a professor of Social Psychology at the University of Virginia who studies morality and emotion and how they vary across cultures. He is also a leader in positive psychology and studies positive emotions such as moral elevation, admiration, and awe.

From what I gather from reading the introduction, The Happiness Hypothesis is about ten Great Ideas that Haidt has come across in the works of ancient wisdom (Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, the sayings of Buddha, Analects of Confucius, the Tao te Ching, the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, etc.) and other works of philosophy and literature (Shakespeare for example). Each chapter attempts to savor one of these ten Great Ideas and to question it in light of what we now know from scientific research, and to extract from it the lessons that still apply to our modern lives. This book gives advice on how to construct a life of virtue, happiness, fulfillment, and meaning.

Visit the author’s website to read Chapter One (The Divided Self) and Chapter Four (The Faults of Others). Here are the other Chapter titles in case you’re curious:

Introduction: Too Much Wisdom

1 The Divided Self 1
2 Changing Your Mind 23
3 Reciprocity with a Vengeance 45
4 The Faults of Others 59
5 The Pursuit of Happiness 81
6 Love and Attachments 107
7 The Uses of Adversity 135
8 The Felicity of Virtue 155
9 Divinity With or Without God 181
10 Happiness Comes from Between 213
11 Conclusion: On Balance 241

Acknowledgments 245
Notes 247
References 265
Index 291

My favorite quotes from the Introduction are two from Shakespeare and Buddha with similar meanings.

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. – Shakespeare

Our life is the creation of our mind. – Buddha

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I finally finished The Forbes Book of Great Business Letters: Memos, Missives, Pitches, Proposals and E-Mails (edited by Erik Bruun) and am on to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.

I haven’t read any of her books before and am excited to read this one, McCullers‘s first novel published in 1940; I’m reading it with a book club. Critics call it a classic unforgettable tale of moral isolation in a 1930s small Georgia mill town; Tennesee Williams called McCullers “the greatest prose writer that the South [has] produced.”

If I enjoy The Heart is a Lonely Hunter as much as I expect to, I’ll have to read some of her other works such as: Reflections in a Golden Eye, Clock Without Hands, and The Member of the Wedding.

Here are some of the discussion questions I’ll keep in mind as I read:

  • The title of the book comes from a poem by William Sharp, with the lines “But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts / On a lonely hill.” What is the significance of the title? Is each character in the novel hunting the same thing, or is each in search of something different? McCullers‘s original title for the book was The Mute. Why do you suppose the change was made?
  • McCullers describes John Singer as “an emotional catalyst for all the other characters.” What does his presence inspire in others? Do you believe that he remains inert, as a catalyst by definition should, or is he himself affected by his interactions with the others? Why or why not?
  • McCullers once described the central characters in the novel as “heroic, though ordinary.” How does each character show elements of heroism? Is there a character you find more heroic than the rest?
  • In the book’s first section, Biff’s wife, Alice, quotes Mark 1:16–18: “Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.” How does this quote resonate throughout the novel? What role does spirituality play in the novel? Do the characters strive for communion with a higher spiritual force or unifying principle, something greater than themselves?
  • Music has great importance in the book, from Mick’s aspirations to become a pianist to Willie’s ever-present harmonica. McCullers, who had once hoped to study music at Juilliard, even described the structure of the novel as a three-part fugue, and explained, “Like a voice in a fugue, each one of the main characters is an entity in himself — but his personality takes on a new richness when contrasted and woven in with the other characters in the book.” In what other ways does this musicality assert itself in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? What does music symbolize in the novel? How, too, is silence used?
  • The novel has been widely praised for its ability to illustrate how social, economic, and racial factors serve to isolate people from one another. In what way is each character isolated? What efforts does each make to overcome this alienation? Are the efforts successful or ultimately futile?
  • John Singer dreams he is kneeling before Antonapoulos, who stands at the head of a set of stairs. Behind Singer kneel the four other main characters: Mick, Biff, Jake, and Copeland. How does Singer’s dream reflect the relationships among the main characters? To what extent is Singer’s love of Antonapoulos similar to the attention paid to Singer by Mick, Biff, Jake, and Copeland? Are these characters capable of loving one another? Of receiving love? Are some characters better emotionally equipped than others? Why or why not?
  • Mick Kelly is considered the most autobiographical character McCullers ever created. Mick’s tomboyishness, her musical aspirations, and her dream to escape small-town life parallel the author’s own. When Mick realizes she cannot afford a violin, she tries to build her own. What does the violin symbolize? What does this act tell you about Mick’s character? Do you have sympathy for her when she fails? Do you feel closer to Mick than you do to the other narrators?
  • Mick compartmentalizes her thoughts into what she calls an inner room and an outer room. Why does she do this? Do other characters show this same type of duality? How does it manifest itself?
  • When Jake Blount finds a Bible passage written on a wall, he responds with his own message and then searches for the person who wrote the original message. Why is it important to him to find that person?
  • Dr. Copeland has great dreams for his family and for his community, but he is unable to gain much support for his ideas. Do you think Copeland’s self-perception that he is a failure is valid? How many of his frustrations are a result of racial bias in society? Why do you suppose his relationships with his children are fraught?
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been praised for its sensitive and realistic portrayal of racial tensions in the Depression-era South. What relevance does the novel have today? How much has changed since the 1930s?

Check out Oprah’s Book Club for specific discussion questions for each Part of the book.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I stayed up late to finish reading Lisa See‘s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, which I started on Sunday evening.

Wow, I was practically sobbing as I read the last few chapters; this book is that good.

First, See‘s writing is fantastic! Secondly, Chinese still take filial piety (孝順, xiàoshùn in pīnyīn) very seriously (so seriously that we even learned about it in Mandarin Chinese language class) and See‘s depictions of it hit home. And any woman can relate to the theme of female friendship and the great damage that simple misunderstandings can cause. And lastly, one of the characters in Snow Flower shares my Chinese name – Plum Blossom (婷梅)!

For those of you who haven’t read it yet, the story takes place in 19th-century rural Yongming County (永明縣, Yǒngmíng xiàn in pīnyīn) in Hunan province (湖南省, Húnán shěng in pīnyīn) in China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn). The narrator, Lily (Lady Lu) at age 80 writes her memoirs in nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) — women’s secret writing — to be burned at her funeral (along with money and other items to accompany her in the afterlife) so that her friends and ancestors will welcome her.

Society was ruled by rigid codes of conduct; women had to have their feet bound preferably to 7cm or less if she wanted to improve or keep her social standing, marry men through arranged marriages (matchmaking was done as early as age 6), and reside in upstairs women’s chambers. Women often died in childbirth and their children often did not live past the age of 4. To secure her status in her new household, a woman was expected to produce sons to continue the family line. Daughters were considered “dead branches” and were taught “When a girl, obey your father; when a wife, obey your husband; when a widow, obey your son.”

Lily was born to a lower-middle class family but still her family had enough resources to bind their daughter’s feet. When Lily’s mother took Lily to the local diviner, he saw in Lily and her feet something special and brought her to the attention of Madame Wang, the matchmaker (紅娘, hóngniáng in pīnyīn) in the prosperous neighboring village. If Lily’s foot binding created the perfect “golden lilies” (Madame Wang believed they could be the most beautiful feet in the county), Lily could marry into a wealthy family and her natal family could become more prosperous through the bride-price (gifts given by the groom’s family to the bride’s family). But this would bring long working hours for Baba (爸爸, bàbà in pīnyīn) and the other men in the family to raise money for gifts in the dowry and making extravagant gifts for Lily’s wealthy future husband and his family.

Lily was so special that Madame Wang even suggested that Lily be matched with a laotong or “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) even though no woman in Lily’s family had such a relationship (though all had their own group of sworn sisters). Old sames were two young women whose lives matched eight qualities exactly, which included the girls’ birth month, day, and year, the date of their foot binding, the number of siblings, and a few other characteristics.

Thus, Lily and Snow Flower — both born in the year of the horse (馬, mǎ in pīnyīn) and thus destined to be headstrong — are matched at age 7 as laotongs or “old sames” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn), an emotional match that would last a lifetime through the isolation and hardship of womanhood. They use the secret women’s writing of (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) to share their joys and heartaches on a fan that they pass back and forth over the years.

See tells a beautiful well researched story of love, female friendship, rebellion, and pride. If I say anything else about the story, I’d ruin the book for you.

Anyway, since I am reading this for a book club, thought I would share some discussion questions:

  • Lily endures excruciating pain in order to have her feet bound. What reasons are given for this dangerous practice?
  • Did See‘s descriptions of footbinding remind you of any Western traditions?
  • If some men in 19th-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn) knew about nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn) and “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) friendships, why do you think they allowed these traditions to persist?
  • Reflecting on her first few decades, Lily seems to think her friendship with Snow Flower brought her more good than harm. Do you agree?
  • Lily’s adherence to social customs can seem controversial to us today. Pick a scene where you would have acted differently. Why?
  • Lily defies the wishes of her son in order to pair her grandson with Peony. Does she fully justify her behavior?
  • Lily sometimes pulls us out of the present moment to reflect — as an old woman — on her youthful decisions. What does this device add to the story?
  • How would you film these moments of reflection?
  • If Lily is writing her story to Snow Flower in the afterworld, what do you think Snow Flower’s response would or should be?
  • Did you recognize any aspects of your own friendships in the bond between Lily and Snow Flower?
  • In your opinion, is Lily, who is the narrator, the heroine or the villain? What are her flaws and her strengths?
  • Do you think the concept of “old sames” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn) exists today? Do you have an “old same” (老同, laǒtóng in pīnyīn), or are you part of a sworn sisterhood? In what ways are those relationships similar or different from the ones in nineteenth-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn)?
  • Some men in nineteenth-century China (中國, Zhōngguó in pīnyīn) apparently knew about nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīnyīn), the secret women’s writing described in Snow Flower. Why do you think they tolerated such private communication?
  • Lily writes her story so that Snow Flower can read it in the afterworld. Do you think she tells her story in a convincing way so that Snow Flower can forgive and understand? Do you think Snow Flower would have told the story differently?
  • When Lily and Snow Flower are girls, they have one intimate — almost erotic — moment together. Do you think their relationship was sexual or, given the times, were they simply girls who saw this only as an innocent extension of their friendship?
  • Having a wife with bound feet was a status symbol for men, and, consequently, having bound feet increased a woman’s chances of marriage into a wealthier household. Women took great pride in their feet, which were considered not only beautiful but also their best and most important feature. As a child, would you have fought against having your feet bound, as Third Sister did, knowing you would be consigned to the life of a servant or a “little daughter-in-law”? As a mother, would you have chosen to bind your daughter’s feet?
  • The Chinese character for “mother love” (疼愛, téngaì in pīnyīn) consists of two parts: one meaning “pain,” the other meaning “love.” In your own experience, from the perspective of a mother or a daughter, is there an element of truth to this description of mother love?
  • The author sees Snow Flower and the Secret Fan as a novel about love and regret, but do you think there’s also an element of atonement in it as well?
  • In the story, we are told again and again that women are weak and worthless. But were they really? In what ways did Lily and Snow Flower show their strength and value?
  • Although the story takes place in the nineteenth century and seems very far removed from our lives — we don’t have our feet bound, we’re free and mobile — do you think we’re still bound up in other ways; for instance, by career, family obligations, conventions of feminine beauty, or events beyond our control such as war, the economy, and natural disasters?
  • Because of its phonetic nature, nu shu (女書, nǚshū in pīyīn) could easily be taken out of context and be misunderstood. Today, many of us communicate though e-mail or instant-messaging. Have you ever had an experience where one of your messages has been misunderstood because of lack of context, facial or body gestures, and tone of voice? Or have you ever been on the receiving end of a message that you misinterpreted and your feelings were hurt?
  • Madame Wang, the matchmaker (紅娘, hóngniáng in pīnyīn), is a foot-bound woman and yet she does business with men. How is she different from the other women in the story? Do you think she is considered a woman of status or is she merely a necessary evil?

I am adding Snow Flower and the Secret Fan to my list of favorites and will have to read See‘s latest, Peony in Love, to my list of books to read! I wish I had attended Lisa See‘s Rockville, MD book signing event tonight!

Now, on to The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers!

The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis

I’ve just finished reading The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Dr. Devra Lee Davis.

Wow…this book almost makes you afraid of everything. Who knows, your shampoo and lipstick, the paint in your house, the pesticides used on the food you eat, the chemicals in processed meats, the air in your town, the water that you drink…they could all contain chemicals that cause cancer.

Fortunately, I’m not the paranoid type. From now on, I’ll carefully read the list of ingredients on product labels, cut down my intake of processed meats (despite my love of pastrami and bacon), more or less quit drinking, purchase organic fruits and vegetables when the price difference is within reason, and just hope for the best.

I would definitely recommend this book to those who are surprised to hear that so many cancer causing agents were already identified by the early 1900s.

I’ve started A New Earth: awakening to your life’s purpose by Eckhart Tolle, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. Will write more as I get further into each book.

Why blog?

I love to read. Since I was a child, I’ve always enjoyed spending my money on books and my time devouring them. I also enjoy writing (even though it was always my worst subject in school) and in my current job I don’t get to write much of anything.

I intend to use this blog to keep a journal of the books I read. I read all sorts of books and am a member of several book clubs.

After a spell of business books, I’ve been reading novels. Also, I want to learn more about positive psychology and nutrition and have added several relevant books to my soon-to-read short-list.

Currently, I’m reading:
The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis
A New Earth: awakening to your life’s purpose by Eckhart Tolle
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
The Forbes Book of Great Business Letters: Memos, Missives, Pitches, Proposals and E-Mails by Erik Bruun (editor)

And on my list to read shortly are:
Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment by Martin E. P. Seligman
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky
The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less by Barry Schwartz
The Cure Within: A History of Mind-Body Medicine by Anne Harrington
The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a natural history of four meals by Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food: an eater’s manifesto by Michael Pollan
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle : a year of food life by Barbara Kingsolver
Strategy and the Fat Smoker: doing what’s obvious but not easy by David H Maister