Book Review, Classics, E.H. Gombrich, Fiction, Historical Fiction, History, Mario Puzo, Non-Fiction, Potpour-reads, S.E. Hinton, Young Adult

The Outsiders, The Godfather, and A Little History

In this fourth “potpour-reads” post, I put together some thoughts on three classics, including two works of fiction and one of non-fiction. The first fiction classic is classified by Penguin as a “modern classic” and is sometimes categorized further into “young adult,” although I don’t think that is necessary. The second fiction classic is notoriously known for being simultaneously the author’s least successful stylistically but also the most successful commercially. Finally, the non-fiction classic is an adult adaptation of a history book that was originally written for children, then updated many years later. Each of these books was read in June, 2018, and the covers shown are for the editions that I read.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a book that I have had on my “TBR” shelf for probably 20+ years. I honestly have no idea what took me so long to read it, especially considering how many people love it. Perhaps that was part of my apprehension, actually, because who wants to be “that guy” who hates a book everyone else finds so amazing? Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. The story takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1965. At the heart of the story is its narrator, Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that’s his real name) whose parents have died and left him and his elder brother Sodapop in the care of their eldest brother, Darry. The three teenagers are members of the lower-working class and belong to a type of gang called “Greasers.” Their rivals are the wealthy gang from the better part of town, called the “Socs” (short for “Socials”). One of the more gripping elements of the novel is the intimate look at family and friendship, and especially the way that young men take care of each other when they have no parents or guardians willing or able to do the job. The boys often refer to each other with terms of endearment usually restricted to romantic partners, which provides insight into how close they are and how much they would be willing to risk for one another. They are “boys,” though, and masculine stereotypes abound: duty, honor, manhood, etc. These “values” get the young men into plenty of trouble, from gang fights to murder, to a questionable suicide. What makes the almost clichéd nature of it all (a girl named “Cherry”?) worth it is the complexity of character that so many of the Greasers have, especially the sensitivity of the poet and the artist, Ponyboy and Johnny. By the end, almost without realizing it, I had begun to root for these kids, just as many of the townspeople do. This is a book that has certainly “stayed gold” after all these years. (I’m killing myself after learning that Hinton wrote the book when she was in high school and published it when she was 18 – my god!)

The Godfather by Mario Puzo

This is another book I have been meaning to read for years, ever since I discovered that it was a book and not just a movie. The Godfather trilogy is my favorite film series of all-time; so, much like The Outsiders, I suppose I was subconsciously reluctant to read it because I wondered if it would withstand my close scrutiny. I mean, I basically grew up on this movie! Unlike The Outsiders, though, Mario Puzo’s book was just “okay,” for me. It is one of those rare instances where the film really outdoes the original material, and I think a lot of that is thanks to the genius of Francis Ford Coppola and the many incredible actors hired for the film(s). The novel itself is interesting and I did enjoy it, and probably would have even if I weren’t already so familiar with the story. Some of the positives, in fact, include the detailed sub-plots that did not make it into any of the movies, such as the storyline for Johnny Fontaine. At first, I wondered why he was getting so much page time since his character was so insignificant in the film, but the book does more than make it work. I also enjoyed reading this as an American immigrant story. Even though Vito Corleone’s back story does not get nearly as much attention as is provided in The Godfather II, there are enough recognizable bits of it. I was reminded, while reading, that this is one of the few books in college I was assigned to read but never did. The point was to read it as an immigrant novel, and I think having done so (in an academic setting) would have been interesting. Instead, I focused on other things while relying on my knowledge of the film to get me through discussions. Whoops! I did find that the book was fairly well written, though not the kind of evocative prose or description I was expecting. Puzo himself expressed that he wrote this book for money and in desperation, so I’m confident that he would agree with me that this isn’t a stellar work. Still, it’s a good one and it lent itself perfectly for the franchise it would birth.

A Little History of the World by E.H. Gombrich

This book is, well, how can I put it other than to say, it is darling. Who knew a history book could be precious? As it turns out, Gombrich originally wrote the book in German and for children, and it was a wild success, until World War II happened and the Nazis banned it. Many years later, he rewrote and expanded the book for adults and translated it himself into English for a bigger market audience. One can tell by much of the phrasing that it was originally written for children, but I did not find this a distraction. The history is accurate and thorough enough (though very concise) for an adult reader to appreciate it, and yet there is a strong sense of wonder and awe in the prose and style. Gombrich invites the reader to engage with multiple historical events as they happen concurrently, which has always been my favorite way to approach the study of history (otherwise I can never remember what was happening at the same time as whatever else). In this way, it is one of the favorite pieces of popular history I have ever read. That said, it is clear that Gombrich studied art (his doctorate was earned in art history), because he spends a lot of time focusing on the artistic elements of each event and looking at what was happening in history through an artistic lens. Many of his analogies have to do with art or music. This style might not work for everyone, but it was fine for me. I also appreciated two important features: first, Gombrich writes about the many religions with equal respect and detail. This is really uncommon in many popular histories, and even academic ones, so call it a pleasant surprise! He also treats religion as the historical feature it is, within the context of each culture, yes, but also in relation (drawing the lines between Christ and Mohammed, for example.) I found this beyond helpful, and so fascinating! The second important feature is that he corrected information in previous editions. Where he had made an error, he explicitly pointed it out and amended that information for the new edition. In both ways, he demonstrated a trustworthy ethos–always important, but even more so these days. This is a book that will remain on my shelf permanently.

 

Standard
Book Review, Christopher Phillips, Death and Dying, Fiction, George Saunders, Grief/Recovery, Historical Fiction, LGBT, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Philosophy, Potpour-reads, Will Walton, Young Adult

Lincoln, Socrates, and A Funeral

In this third “potpour-reads” post, I share some quick thoughts on three recent reads, all of which were completed in June. Somehow, none of these books are ones from any of my challenge lists. Go figure. I read Lincoln in the Bardo because it is getting a lot of attention and because it sounded interesting. I read Socrates Café because I have been pivoting toward philosophy and history pretty heavily in the last couple of months (since January, really, when I began my focused study of Stoicism); and I read I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain largely based on the recommendation of the incomparable Andrew Smith, who has not steered me wrong, yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike anything I have ever read. It is a contemporary postmodernism married with black humor and historical fiction. As a first novel, it seems a stunning achievement, though this is the first Saunders work I have read at all, so I do not know how it compares to his short stories. (I’ve had Tenth of December sitting on my shelf for years, having purchased it only a few weeks after it was published; it is safe to say I plan to get to it sooner rather than later, now.) Essentially, Saunders combines historical accounts of Lincoln’s life and presidency with fictional ones that he creates, and then interweaves in almost testimonial fashion between the narrative portion, which is told by a trio of bizarre ghosts who meet one of Lincoln’s sons and, through him, the President himself. I’ve read a number of reviews that found the humor in this book to be off-putting and even inappropriate. I can understand their point, as some of the bawdy comedy does seem to come out of left-field. And yet, I can’t help thinking about what I’ve learned about Lincoln’s sense of humor over the years. It seems to me that he would actually appreciate the irreverent take on his life and legacy, particularly as it highlights the elements of human nature that Saunders explores, here, including fear, sexuality, death, mental health, and loneliness. It is safe to say that I did not know what to expect of Lincoln in the Bardo, even after reading the description and other reviews. Then, when reading the book, it somehow managed to be even more different than I thought it would be. In this way, I think, it deserves all the praise it has received as a contemporary masterpiece and a novel approach to, well, the novel. I was also thrilled that Saunders explored a lot of contemporary issues that are actually historical, yet would have been “taboo” for discussion in Lincoln’s time

Socrates Café by Christopher Phillips

I have been reading much more non-fiction, lately, including history and philosophy. I stumbled upon Christopher Phillips’s Socrates Café while perusing the philosophy section of Barnes & Noble for contemporary overviews (I’ve been in a kind of “self-help” exploratory approach to the history of philosophy, I guess.) Despite reading the blurb, this is another book that caught me slightly off-guard and was not what I had expected. It is in many ways a reference guide to creating your own Socrates Café, something I had never considered and yet left the book feeling, “well, why the hell not?” I loved Phillips passion, though I did sometimes feel like the examples he gave from his own cafes around the country seemed a little far-fetched. Maybe they did happen, I don’t know, but he himself says that most of this was reconstructed after the fact, so I can’t help thinking he added a bit more flair and impressive insight than might have occurred originally. (So many of his café participants seemed to know so much about philosophy, for example, and could quote a range of philosophers from memory.) In this way, I found the book might be setting false expectations for people who are using it as a guide to beginning their own Socrates Cafe. That said, as a generally interested reader, one who is on his own journey to learn more about ancient philosophies andto think more thoughtfully about the current world, this book does an excellent job of putting the two together. In the end, it did make me want to get out there and engage with other thoughtful people, to ask big and small questions without expecting concrete answers, and to wonder gleefully about all manner of things. I think, then, Phillips does what he set out to do: make philosophy exciting again.

I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Will Walton

Like Lincoln in the Bardo, Will Walton’s young adult novel about grief and loss, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a creative approach to narrative (and verse) fiction. It was also not what I expected from the blurb and from reading other reviews, and yet somehow ended up being much more satisfying, much more curious, than I imagined it would be. I’ve been let down by “hype” on too many occasions, as I think we all have, but in this case, I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain lives up to the hype without necessarily living up to expectations. I’m not sure how to clarify that except to say, even though the book did not meet my expectations, I ended up appreciating it and what it does in ways that I hadn’t anticipated. This is mostly due to its construction and to the fact that, somehow, Walton manages to create that sense of grief in his text, the confusion, the sense of drowning, the psychological wandering we do when we have lost someone important to us. There are a lot of books about grief and loss, some of them are beautiful in the way they treat the subject or in the language they use to explore it. Walton’s is beautiful because, inexplicably, it simply reads like the experience of grief. I think back to a time when I most felt a terrible loss and can easily connect those feelings to the way this narrative is told and the way it unfolds, in choppy segments, in distant characterization, and in the interplay of concrete prose and transcendent verse. My only personal critique was that I felt, sometimes, like some of the segments read as if they were creative prompts inserted for the sake of it, and not as if they developed along the course of this particular story. That said, I Felt A Funeral, In My Brain, is a special book that explores a difficult topic in a unique way. It is unlike anything else on the market this year.

Standard
Adventure, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah by Allan Richard Shickman

Zan-Gah is a prehistoric adventure tale of young Zan, a tribal boy and twin brother, who earns his name “Zan-Gah” after fearlessly slaying a dangerous lioness and, in the eyes of the local clans, proves himself a hero and future leader. The book spans more than a year (or more, with flashbacks), in which time Zan goes on a journey to find his lost twin brother, who has been captured by a dangerous clan, more powerful than even the Wasp People, Zan’s clans bitterest and most deadly foes. Zan must survive on his own, fashioning new weapons and tools, and improvising for food and water sources. While the tale is interesting and Zan’s story fascinating to watch, much was packed into this little book, so that no time is spent truly developing the plot or characters, or allowing the story to breathe.

I actually quite enjoyed the different characters in this book. There is an appropriate depth to each, being a novel for young readers. Still, there is some complexity in the characters; descriptions of Dael’s psychological trauma, for instance, and Zan’s devotion to his family and burgeoning leadership skills, are well-done. The author is also careful to create a balance between the serious and the joyful. Chul and his wife, for instance, remind me almost of a prehistoric Lucy and Rickie of I Love Lucy. They balance out Zan’s rather sad parents. Also, the book includes representatives of the wise and the foolish, the brave and the spineless. The greatest achievement in this regard, though, is that each of the characters are simple enough to understand, but complex and independently imagined enough so as to avoid becoming caricatures or grotesques of an idea.

There is a bit of an imbalance, I think, in the reading level versus maturity level of the targeted audience. While the prose and structure are simple and easy to follow, there are varying degrees in vocabulary and thematic difficulty levels. Also, there are instances of rather adult elements and situations, such as the graphic slaying of a rival clan member. For this reason, I felt at times that the story itself would be more suited for the “Independent Reader,” in general, except that I would not encourage a child under the age of 12 to read it (due to some of the more difficult vocabulary and the graphic scenes). Still, for those young teenagers or middle schools who do read this book, it does have a decent balance of difficulty and maturity, with ease of reading, so that the young reader may be challenged without feeling “burnt out,” particularly if he/she is a developing reader.

There are certainly some larger issues at work, here – like the ideas of courage and bravery, and responsibility to duty and family. Physical and emotional pain, too, and their lingering effects on the injured and their loved ones are also presented fairly and with prominent importance. I enjoyed the inclusion of ideas like compromise, teamwork, and resourcefulness, all great elements for a young adult reader to encounter. Still, and unfortunately, due to the rushed pace (three days or a year might pass within one or two sentences), these elements did not have much time to develop or grow, or really implant themselves in the reader’s psyche, before the story moved on. The same could be said for the settings, which change quickly as Zan moves quickly across the landscape. It might be enough for a new reader, wetting the appetite without overwhelming, but adult and experienced readers, I think, would be underwhelmed, though appreciative of the attempt.  All-in-all, I believe young readers, particularly adventurous or historically/culturally-inquisitive young boys and girls, might have a great time with Zan’s adventure, but experienced or adult readers might find it difficult to connect with.

Standard
Ancient Greece, Annabel Lyon, Book Review, Classical History, Fiction, Historical Fiction

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

Oh, how I wanted to love this book.  I had no doubt in my mind, given the subject, the blurb, and some of the reviews (not to mention the great cover art), that this was going to be a brilliant read. Unfortunately, I was a bit mistaken. This is not to say that the book was bad – it really wasn’t, and if you are looking for a quick, easy, superficial book about the time period and some of the relationship between Aristotle and his superstar pupil, Alexander, then this book might be right up your alley. Aristotle and his wife move to Pella to visit King Phillip, an old friend of Aristotle’s. While there, Aristotle meets the young princes. He first begins, on his own, to tutor the elder brother, a mentally handicapped teenager.  n time, Alexander comes to like and approve of Aristotle, so he too (and his friends/lovers) become pupils of the master. There are some mentions of the tensions between neighboring city-states, as well as wars and the assassination of Phillip, which brings Alexander to power but, all-in-all, for the amount of time this book covers, and the lofty subject matter, it probably should have been (and could have been) another 300 pages long.

Two major things about this book bothered me, and really brought down the overall impression of it for me. The first was its disappointing characterization and lack of character development. This book deals with some of the most impressive people who history has ever known and, in particular, one of the most interesting student-teacher relationships of all-time. Yet, the characters fall flat. Pythias and the bit of Plato/Cleopatra the reader sees are slightly interesting, as are some of the minor characters (like Hephaestion and Athea) but Alexander and Aristotle, the two “main” characters of the story seem so far from the story, as if there is almost a physical distance between what is happening the story, and who is playing in it. Perhaps this does have something to do with the author’s possible intent to make this book somewhat of a play (a character list appears at the start, for instance, and the book is laid out in five long parts, rather than in chapters). Since the book is written in prose, though, and not in drama form, this intent is lost, and the characters remain “actors” of characters in a larger story, never fully developed because there is no substantive connection. This would be what an old creative writing instructor would call a case of “telling, not showing.” 

Setting aside the disconnect between the author’s possible intent and what was actually accomplished or decided on, the overall prose is satisfactory and even enjoyable – it is probably the best element of the book in general. Lyon certainly has great technical ability, and she does express emotion and humor very well through prose and dialogue. The language was engaging and the reader can certainly relax into this book, enjoying pages at a time with ease. What was problematic; however, were the instances of “flashbacks” into Aristotle’s past. These sections of the story are segmented into different enumerated portions; however, there is no clear distinction of what is happening when. At times, I could not remember (or figure out) whether I was getting Aristotle’s boyhood, or Alexander’s.

The second major disappointment was in the lack of deeper meaning from this text, or the potential edification that a text like this could have provided. There were certainly names, dates, places, and events, but none of this really seemed to mean anything. It was almost as if Aristotle and Alexander were living out their drama in suburban Wisconsin – some big cities, some small, but so what? At times, I even forgot where and when this book was taking place, so much so that I expected references to electricity or telephones at any moment. For a story about classical Greek history, this is not a good thing. Sure, it makes the book easy to read and accessible to a larger audience, but so much that could have been, just wasn’t.

Standard
Atheism, Book Review, Christopher Marlowe, Historical Fiction, Kathe Koja, LGBT, Novella

Christopher Wild by Kathe Koja

Anna Quindlen once wrote, “[books] are the destination, and the journey. They are home.” It is hard for me to find a better example of this adage than the works of Kathe Koja. The act of reading her stories is not just an experience, but an event. Every time I begin a new Koja novel, I wonder, “can I really go home again?” There is a fear in the first pages, a desperate hopefulness that Koja will not have abandoned me as a reader. But the answer to that question has repeatedly been, yes. In reading Kathe Koja, I come home.

Christopher Wild is a remarkable trilogy of novellas that reimagines the life of Christopher Marlowe as it was in the 1590s and as it could have been in more recent times. The first novella, written in the passionate, fluid, Elizabethan style that will be familiar to fans of Under the Poppy, pays great homage to the historical life of Marlowe and his contemporaries. Included in the tale are a number of familiar characters, including Shakespeare and the University Wits. Koja adeptly tackles the myth of the man and weaves into it the facts as we know them, recreating a believable identity for this spy, lover, and dramatist. In the second tale, Koja imagines Marlowe in a near-contemporary society. How would this man navigate city life, intrigue, sexuality, and his writing if he lived in a time and place more similar to our own? Some of the characters from the first novella reappear again with different names and roles, but they—most of them—fulfill their prophecies. The third novella imagines a near-future, one that seems dystopic in many ways but which, unfortunately, becomes more and more probable all the time. An intrusive government that can control anyone’s every move; a nation of closed borders and constant surveillance; a paranoia about free thought and free speech, both of which are stifled by a police state that employs its creative citizens or destroys them when they do not comply. Amidst this darkness is a poet who dares to defy the system and who will speak the truth, whatever the cost.  

Holding all three novellas together is the idea of the writer-activist. What responsibilities does a writer have to truth? How does the poet hold an oppressive government to account? Can words wake us up from our lethargy and apathy? In each case, Christopher, or Chris, or X04, or Kit, or Merlin, personifies the answer to these questions. To be bold and brazen. To be honest and courageous. To be independent of mind and heart and spirit. These are the necessary qualities of the poet, the individual, the rebel, the titan. And what sustains him? Love. Sure, Koja eagerly and truthfully draws a man who is liberal in his lusts and passions, for drink and for men. In all three novellas, the Marlowe character gives and takes of the body with abandon and without apology. And yet, the sexuality is never tawdry, never gratuitous. It reflects the character of the man, the vibrancy and virility of his existence, and his constant state of awareness, the recognition that his time is short. In whose hands could these sensibilities, this anchored sensuality, be more powerfully and delicately crafted? I’m reminded only of Anthony Burgess and Henry Miller—satirical surrealists—who express the balance of mind and body not only in the stories they create, but also in the language they craft to tell them. Koja is undeniably in this company.

Many have noted that this work is an ode to Christopher Marlowe. Koja’s knowledge of Marlowe comes across loud and clear, and her passion for the man, his talent, and his lifestyle are treated with deserved reverence. What this unique work does for me, however, even as a fan of Marlowe, is much bigger than a love letter to one Elizabethan playwright: it is a love letter to writing and to writers. In reading the three novellas, one notices common themes arise over and over again. At the heart of these is the river of time that connects all of us and all of our stories, and how its mythos cannot be outrun or over-imagined. This becomes clear in the way Koja ends each of the three Marlowe tales. The second, which takes place in a near-present time, is the most hopeful. It seems to me a powerful message about the role of the writer as s/he exists in the present. The past cannot be changed and the future is unclear, but if anyone has the ability and audacity to dare plumb and dam and navigate those rivers, it is the writer. And if anything has the power to move hearts and minds, to stir men and women to action, it is the voice of the poet. Kathe Koja, in honoring a literary and cultural hero and phenomenon, reminds us that Marlowe is much more than a man; he is an idea. The charge of that idea, the electricity of it, is so palpable in the way Koja crafts and caresses Christopher Wild, that it brought this reader, and writer, out of a months-long slump. Koja has made a writer want to start writing again, and I can’t think of any idea more profound than that.

Notable Quotes

“The small feed as they can, the large as they will, whether the meal suits them or no. there is the world” (22).

“What does it matter, that first fulcrum point, if the mind resolves to move the world?” (24)

“Was there concomitant comfort in the promise of rewards, pearly gates and eternity of rest among the blessed, safe forever from the outer darkness of freedom and sin, or only the fear of that dark?” (155)

“But for himself the point was and is still the brute beauty of it—attended by power, yes, sheer playful aggression, and that live-wire rush when the writing comes right, nothing in the world to better it, as if the gears of the universe have for one perfect moment fallen into perfect place” (209).

Standard
Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Helene Wecker, Historical Fiction, Mythology

Thoughts: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

15819028The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful

Helene Wecker’s historical fantasy novel, The Golem and the Jinni, was a pleasant surprise for me.  It had been much-hyped, before and after publication, and my experience with “those” kinds of books has tended to be less than wonderful.  I am thrilled to say, though, that The Golem and the Jinni, not only lived up to expectations, but exceeded them (mine, especially).  The story is about two mythological creates whose paths are fated to cross.  The first, Ahmad, is a gorgeous, fiery Jinni who has been bound to a wicked master for generations; the second, Chava, is a uniquely gifted Golem, created to serve a specific purpose but now lost without her master who died at sea shortly after she was awaken (born).  The two creatures meet in New York city, thousands of miles from their middle eastern homelands, at the turn of the century (1899).  Although they are quite different – differently skilled, with wildly different temperaments – they develop a strange friendship, the strength of which their own fate, and the fate of the world, might depend on.

Characterization:
4 – Characters extraordinarily developed.

It is rare to read a fantasy story about two inhuman characters who read as so very human.  Each of these creatures is awoken in a time, place, and situation which calls for them to be essentially born anew.  They must learn the ways of the world, the languages and customs of the new world, in order to survive and to protect those who they have grown to care for, if somewhat begrudgingly.  The Jinni, a creature of fire and air, learns to hone his skills with metalwork and artistry, all the while longing for freedom from his bondage and for his homeland, the deserts of the Middle East.  The Golem, more intelligent, inquisitive, and lifelike than any other golem before her, struggles to navigate such a populated place; living in New York is difficult for someone like her, because she can sense and feel all the thoughts and emotions of those around her.  Interestingly enough, while they both learn much about humanity by living amongst humans, it is the friendship that develops between them, the bond that only two non-humans can share, which teaches them the greatest human lessons of all – faith, love, and sacrifice.

Prose/Style:
4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.

Wecker certainly has a talent not just for storytelling, but for story-crafting. The story of Ahmad and his master, which is central to The Golem and the Jinni, is one which spans centuries of time, and numerous countries; yet, Wecker manages to weave the jinni’s sparse memories so fluidly into the main story that we hardly realize how much history has unfolded before us.  The lives of the characters and their stories interconnect effortlessly, right up to the conclusion, which is stunning in conception and delivery.  Her prose is simultaneously deep and delicate, romantic and bare.  The marriage of style and story reminds me of the great gothic Romances, of Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Shelley – Wecker has somehow recreated one of the most sentimental, exploratory literary movements in a contemporary novel that is set in the past.  She provides just enough suspense, just enough romance, just enough magic, and just enough reality to make it all work seamlessly.

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What the great gothic Romances, like Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde did was to tell the story of humanity through a supernatural lens.  What can we learn about ourselves, about our desire for power, knowledge, control, by exploring the cause and effect relationship between who we are and what we create?  Wecker revisits this question, she asks, again, what does it mean to be human, to be capable of creating great and terrible things, to be gods among men?  Much of today’s literature, with the exception, perhaps, of those like DeLillo and Vonnegut, forgets to question this power, forgets to wonder about the cause-and-effect relationship between our scientific, technological advances and our moral centers.  Wecker does this, in the original form.  She reminds us to think about how far we go, to question the value of our creations, to wonder about our humanity, and to reevaluate ourselves and our impact on the world – our dasein, as Heidegger would put it.  Above everything, she reminds us that the world belongs to all of us and that the best we can do with our lives is to love and to learn.  The Golem and the Jinni was one of my favorite reads of 2013.

Suggested Reading For:
Age Level: Adult
Interest: Fantasy, Mythology, Historical Fiction, Witchcraft, Romance.

Notable Quotes:

“A man might desire something for a moment, while a larger part of him rejects it. You’ll need to learn to judge people by their actions, not their thoughts.”

“Sometimes men want what they don’t have because they don’t have it. Even if everyone offered to share, they would only want the share that wasn’t theirs.”

“I look at what we call faith, and all I see is superstition and subjugation. All religions . . . create false divisions, and enslave us to fantasies, when we need to focus on the here and now.”

Standard
1001 Books, American Lit, Book Review, Classics, Coming-of-Age, Courtroom Drama, Events, Fiction, Harper Lee, Historical Fiction, MockingbirdReads, Read-Alongs, Social Drama, Southern Lit

Thoughts: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

2657To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0
YTD: 46

Harper Lee’s noted –and only- work, To Kill a Mockingbird, has become a classic piece of literature and a staple of American culture and southern history.  The narrator and protagonist, Scout Finch, along with her brother, Jem, and their friend, Dill, begin the story as lighthearted, inquisitive and playful children who are fascinated by a mysterious neighbor named Arthur “Boo” Radley.  As the story progresses, they have a series of encounters with Boo, but they do not know it (until all comes to a head in the tragic and life-altering conclusion).  Jem and Scout’s father, Atticus, is the town (and county’s) best lawyer, and also a representative to the state legislature.  He is tasked with defending a black man against the charge of rape, and the task will change his children forever.

Although the book directly wrestles with issues of racism, violence, bigotry, caste, and education, its primary concern is coming of age and loss of innocence.  Scout’s innocence, in particular, but also Jem and Dill’s, is threatened by successive incidents that reveal to these generally kind, somewhat simple kids the presence and nature of human evils.  This is especially made clear with the conviction of Tom Robinson, a black man who, from the start, was bound to be found guilty, despite Atticus Finch’s brilliant defense and the clear evidence support Robinson’s innocence.  This conviction shatters Jem’s world and forces him into manhood, meanwhile causing Dill, a gentle and artistic soul, to face the harsh realities of a world he tries so hard to avoid.

The trial is only the first of two major incidents which will change the kids’ worlds.  The second happens at the end of the book, when the man whom accused Robinson of rape (and whom Atticus clearly implicates instead), attempts to make good on his promise to ruin Atticus Finch.  Although neither he nor anyone in his family was punished for their perjury and false accusations, and although Robinson was ultimately convicted and suffered the harshest fate, Bob Ewell still feels it necessary to seek his own justice for the “damage of character” done to him at the trial.  This particularly subplot is particularly telling of how class, within white society, is just as important and just as divided as the world of blacks and whites.

Ultimately, To Kill a Mockingbird is an exploration of human nature and each individual’s capacity for both good and evil.  It is a commentary on the importance of moral education – much more so than academic education, and a discussion on social class and the true meaning of justice (and who is entitled to it).  Harper Lee utilizes interesting Gothic techniques, reminiscent of the great southern Gothics such as Flannery O’Connor, to build tension and anticipation, and to foreshadow the story’s more important events.

Allowing the story to be told from Scout’s point of view, in retrospect, adds both honesty and evidence to the story, but also some room for doubt.  She narrates the entire story in the first person, as through her childhood self’s eyes, but then adds analysis and supplementary thoughts to the narration, as an experienced adult revisiting these events after many years.  The inclusion of these comments makes the narrator more trustworthy, as it reveals to us that she is aware (and admitting) that she is somewhat distanced from the time and place of the story and, therefore, could possibly be over or under-exaggerating certain things.  The tone of her narration, like the tone of the story, begins in childhood innocence but becomes increasingly foreboding and self-conscious as the tale unwinds.

To be sure, To Kill a Mockingbird holds a beloved place in the hearts of many readers and also a coveted spot in the canon as a “classic” of American literature.  When I first read this book, many years ago, I was not as much of a fan as I thought I would be, but this re-read has proved me wrong.  The book is well-written and masterfully constructed (where and how Lee begins the story, for instance, really struck me as perfection, this time around).  The characters, good, bad, and indifferent, are believable, interesting, and important to the plot and scenery.  This is a book I will be revisiting again and again.

I read this book as part of a read-along, with additional thoughts posted Here.


Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 16+
Interest: Social Justice, Racism, American South, Courtroom Drama, Coming of Age, Southern Gothic.

Notable Quotes:

“Thus we came to know Dill as a pocket Merlin, whose head teemed with eccentric plans, strange longings, and quaint fancies” (9).

“There were other ways of making people into ghosts” (12).

“It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind” (19).

“When a child asks you something, answer him, for goodness’ sake. But don’t make a production of it. Children are children, but they can spot an evasion quicker than adults” (99).

“Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” (103).

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that just doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience” (120).

“I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what” 128).

“Dill was off again. Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head. He could read two books to my one, but he preferred the magic of his own inventions” (163).

“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks” (259).

“Atticus had used every tool available to free men to save Tom Robinson, but in the secret court of men’s hearts Atticus had no case” (276).

“I came to the conclusion that people were just peculiar. I withdrew from them, and never thought about them until I was forced to” (279).

“As I made my way home, I thought Jem and I would get grown but there wasn’t much else left for us to learn, except possibly algebra” (321).


Standard