Sunday, March 20, 2016

Really Good Titles

I've got three novels on the go right now. Everything is going great; I'm in one of those cherished amiable reading moods for which I am grateful.  For me, early 20th century literature is the pause that refreshes. How about those titles, the words on the cover of the book? They're all good enough to eat! I want to sing them in the shower!

(opening mouth, clearing throat)

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky - Patrick Hamilton. This long-ish 1935 novel was originally published as three novellas in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and feature three young people: Bob, a waiter who works at "The Midnight Bell", which is also the title of the first novella; Jenny, (her beginnings in debauchery are explored in The Siege of Pleasure) the beautiful prostitute who wanders into Bob's life and wanders out when he's depleted his savings; and Ella, a barmaid who is Bob's coworker at The Midnight Bell. She also loves Bob and has an unwelcome older suitor in The Plains of Cement. Hamilton's other career as a playwright serves him well. The chapters are short and punchy and he is expert at establishing character while setting a scene to perfection. What's really surprising is that Hamilton was a huge drunk, but it seems to have sharpened his observational skills instead of dulling them. He describes all the stages of drunkenness so precisely and except for Raymond Carver, no one does drunken blather better. And that title! Yes, he cannibalized Jules Verne, but the result is gorgeous.

Chocolates for Breakfast - Pamela Moore. In 1956, America's "answer" to Francoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse was published by Moore, who was eighteen years old at the time. Like most first novels, it's semi-autobiographical. Like The Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar, two novels Chocolate for Breakfast is often referred to, it has aged well, probably due to the disaffected heroine and the subject matter. Fun fact: Courtney Love claims that her mother named her after Courtney Farrell, the main character.  Not-so-fun fact: Chocolates for Breakfast was a runaway international success, and Moore went on to write other novels, but they weren't as well-received.  She killed herself at the age of twenty-six. Chocolates for Breakfast fell into semi-oblivion, then was reissued in 2013.

It Can't Happen Here - Sinclair Lewis.  Back when I was an intrepid young English major, I had a literary crush on Sinclair Lewis. After discovering Main Street in my American Novels class, I hunted down and devoured Arrowsmith, Ann Vickers, Dodsworth, and my favorite, Elmer Gantry. There was also his biography. Then my adoration cooled a bit, but I still dream of visiting Sauk Center, Minnesota and I squealed like a fangirl when I spotted someone in Boardwalk Empire reading Lewis' first novel, Free Air. How is it that I never got to 1935's It Can't Happen Here until now? (The "now" part is more obvious, isn't it, this being a crazier than usual election year.) I'm only a couple of chapters in, and I'm having to readjust myself to Lewis' hit-them-over-the-head-harder-harder! satirical style. Tastes change, I'm afraid, but I still love you, Red.

Which of these titles grabs you by your slightly oversized double lapels and won't let go?

1 comment:

Unruly Reader said...

Chocolates for Breakfast... sounds like a manual for good living. I'm on board with that.