Thursday, November 26, 2015

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman

A few decades ago I read an F. Scott Fitzgerald short story called The Ice Palace. Its theme – the culture clash between the American North and South -- was intimately understood by the Minnesota native who'd married an Alabama belle.

I’ve been fascinated with this clash ever since. So while I picked up Go Set a Watchman because there was no way I was going to miss the second Harper Lee novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it covers this topic, largely because the now-adult, NYC-based Scout visits Maycomb yearly.

While Mockingbird’s perspective was obviously ensconced in the south, Watchman looks at that same culture with slightly northern eyes. If Scout once viewed Maycomb from Boo Radley's porch, she now sees it from much further away, especially as it regards racism and her father’s involvement in it.

For yes, it turns out that the great Atticus Finch was a racist. I was surprised but ultimately not shocked. Why not? Because nothing about this good man's behavior in Mockingbird hinted that he was more than just that: a good man. Not a radical one.

Remember that conversation in Mockingbird between Miss Maudie, Scout, and Jem, the one in which Maudie reminds the children that Atticus has been chosen to do Maycomb’s dirty work for them? He was asked to defend Tom Robinson. He didn’t volunteer. There were good people in Maycomb, good enough, anyway, to try and do the right thing even when the outcome was a forgone conclusion. They asked Atticus because they wanted a representation of their best intentions to prove they were better than the mob who tried to lynch Tom Robinson before the trial, and certainly better than Bob Ewell, the white trash who accused him in the first place.

For readers to now discover that Maycomb's best white citizen didn’t actually consider blacks as equals is of course a huge disappointment. But why should we be surprised that a pre-civil rights southern white man held such abhorrent views?

Although he was the best in his own sphere, he was ensconced in that sphere. He might put his reputation and safety on the line to defend a falsely-accused black man but that didn’t mean he’d approve of his daughter marrying a black man (or, even, as he says in Watchman, go to school with her).

Regarding Scout’s possible marriage (and a new topic): she has a beau in Watchman. Henry, her father’s junior law partner, is her on-again-whenever-she-comes-home beau, a romance built on a post-Mockingbird childhood friendship. And if it’s patently obvious that Atticus wouldn’t have approved a black man as son-in-law, Aunt Alexandra – now living with her brother – does not approve of where the Scout-Hank relationship might go:

We Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash which is exactly what Henry’s parents were when the were born and were all their lives. You can’t call them anything better. The only reason Henry’s like he is now is because your father took him in hand when he was a boy, and because the war came along and paid for his education. Fine boy as he is, it won’t wash the trash out of him.

Later on in the novel, Henry reiterates the point to Scout:

You can parade around town in your dungarees with your shirttail out and barefooted if you want to. Maycomb says, ‘That’s the Finch in her, that’s just Her Way.’ Maycomb grins and goes about its business: old Scout Finch never changes…

But let Henry Clinton show any signs of deviatin’ from the norm and Maycomb says, not ‘That’s the Clinton in him,’ but ‘That’s the trash in him.’”

I find this absolutely fascinating: within certain social realms there are enormous differences visible only to the citizens of that realm. This seems especially so in the South, at least in novels like this one and GWTW.

Regarding the rest of the novel: although I found one section absolutely gut-splitting – the flashback wherein Jem, Dill, and Scout put on their own “revival” – the rest of the novel was underwhelming. For me, it lacked the earlier novel’s potent combination of nostalgia and transcendence. Unfair assessment? Perhaps. And perhaps I’ve now joined the ranks of absurd reviewers who rate a book for what they think it should have been rather than for what it is: i.e., giving a brownie cookbook one star for not mentioning cookies or a YA book two for not being adult. Call me absurd then but Watchman is no Mockingbird and while I couldn't put the former down and am glad to have read it, it's unlikely I’ll be rereading it anytime soon.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

My favorite Jane Austen fan fiction (so far)

Aidan Assembly.jpg

I'm almost finished with this book and must say that I'm enjoying it more than any previous written attempts at getting into the head of Jane Austen's somewhat inscrutable Fitzwilliam Darcy. Aidan credits the 1995 TV series with her inspiration but she has created something all her own, most of it quite believable and enjoyable.

I must admit growing a little tired of Darcy and Elizabeth's verbal interactions being constantly referred to in terms of a "fencing match" but on the other hand, it's a fairly accurate description of their relationship at this point in the story. Some of the descriptions of Elizabeth seemed a bit flowery but then again, Darcy was quite smitten, so it's not much of a stretch.

And Elizabeth Bennet is a bit different here than she appears in the original work but that's not necessarily a bad thing. We see her in P&P as witty. But in Assembly, it is not just her wit that bewitches Mr. Darcy but her beautiful singing voice (he hears her in church before the Lucas party), her goodness, and even her taste in books (apparently, Aiden's Darcy relishes the fact that she likes Milton's Paradise Lost).

Right now, I'm in the midst of the post-ball Bingley "kidnapping" to London; Darcy hasn't even told Bingley yet that they're not returning. Only Caroline Bingley seems to be in on the secret. Again, and of course, entirely believable and fascinating to see this scene, only briefly mentioned in the original work and rarely shown in any of the adaptations.

In all, I find Aiden's fleshing out of the characters even more believable than the excellent 1995 TV series and am looking forward to the next two installments.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

My favorite used book store, The Looking Glass

These photos might make The Looking Glass used book store appear larger than actuality. I've never seen a book store quite this organized or lovely. Scroll down and see for yourself. Better yet, visit them in person or online.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Casual Vacancy: A 21st-Century Dickens Novel

As a fan of the Harry Potter series I probably should have attempted to read JK Rowling's foray into adult literature long before last fall when a fellow bibliophile gave me a copy for my birthday. I jumped in eagerly, not only because of my friendship with said bibliophile, but because the reviews were so varied -- running the gamut between disgust and delight -- I wondered on which side my opinion would fall.

After the main character -- a good little man who casts an enormous shadow -- dies on the second page, the reader is introduced to a diverse cast of characters, all of whom are affected in some way by this death. How many characters? So many that I felt compelled to print out a character sheet just to keep everyone straight. Turns out I didn't need it for long: all the characters eventually became quite distinct as their stories intertwined brilliantly all the way to a denouement that must be the most bittersweet I've ever read.

An author who creates a long list of detailed characters that intertwine along a plotline centering on bitter class warfare and who has no problem killing off the good, the good-hearted, and the innocent: hmmm, let's see...what other novelist did this book bring to mind? I was about halfway through when I realized I was reading a 21st-century Dickens novel. The 21st-century bit must be what many found so offensive. Rowling writes, um, very descriptively in sections that I must admit to having skimmed over: unless we're talking about what Quentin Tarantino does to fictitious Nazis, I'm what is known as a sensitive viewer.

So I won't be rereading The Casual Vacancy anytime soon, even though it would be a great opportunity for a closer look at the novel's brilliant construction. For one thing, excepting the dead man, there are no characters in this book who I'd care to meet again. To see the effect that one good person can have on a community is almost inspiring here, in an It's a Wonderful Life sort of way, but as there's no one to fill the dead man's shoes, this inspiration factor is bittersweet at most. And, as many have said before me, there is a lot of grim realism to wade through, grit that was never thrust so graphically upon the readers of Dickens.

All this being said, the plot structure, characterizations, and writing in The Casual Vacancy should cement J.K. Rowling's reputation as a genius, even if so much about her novel gives little Dickens-like pleasure to the reader. Didn't he give us at least a few likeable, living characters?