For as long as I can remember, anytime anyone has asked me who my favorite character from literature (or film) is, my answer has invariably been "AttiFor as long as I can remember, anytime anyone has asked me who my favorite character from literature (or film) is, my answer has invariably been "Atticus Finch." Until now, I have never had to question that choice. The Atticus Finch we all knew prior to 2015 was a nearly perfect person, a high-minded lawyer from a small town, defending a falsely accused African-American man against both the charges leveled against him and the racism of the townspeople. Pre-2015 Atticus was a mild-mannered, soft-spoken widower, lovingly raising two children, teaching them tolerance and kindness, urging them to do good service and not to judge others too harshly. And it didn't hurt that he had the nobility of a king, the patience of a saint, and the face of Gregory Peck.
Now, thanks to the release of "Go Set a Watchman," I will have to rethink my answer.
That said, much as I wish my little house of cards had not been toppled by a new perspective, I have to say that this book was neither a travesty nor a masterpiece. It had its shortcomings, yes, but it also had its moments. For one thing, Harper Lee has a lovely way with language. Her clear, familiar voice brings up a hazy yellow-tinted image of the Southern landscape so vivid and nostalgic you almost feel as if you might have grown up in Maycomb County, Alabama, right next door to the Finches. Throughout her depiction of the transplanted Jean Louise Finch, returning to her hometown for a visit after having lived in New York City for the past couple of years, Lee gives us glimpses of the Scout we remember from "Mockingbird" through a series of recollections that Jean Louise describes for us, scenes which transport both the character and the reader back to the days of the novel we still cherish. There are some charming and humorous tales of playtimes with Dill and Jem as children and recollections of her father as a younger man, the father she (and we) looked up to and admired.
These sweet remembrances, though, are juxtaposed with a disturbing social and political atmosphere winding its way through the community. Jean Louise has discovered that the town has become polarized in its views on race and that her father and boyfriend are both involved in the segregationist forces permeating the town. This discovery has made her rethink everything she once believed about her beloved father and her erstwhile fiance. She spends the rest of the novel wrestling with this knowledge and trying to come to terms with it all.
Along the way, she has encounters with her eccentric Uncle Jack, her prim Aunt Alexandra, and her former nanny Calpurnia, resulting in various exchanges and debates, all of which inform her inner conflict, even if they do little to comfort her. Each character becomes a mouthpiece for the different perspectives in the town, but all of these perspectives are abhorrent to Jean Louise, who feels she has entered into a Twilight Zone of incomprehension and betrayal. In "Watchman," it seems that Jean Louise is meant to be the champion of civil rights that her father was in "Mockingbird," but unlike that book, which succeeded on every level, this book does not, largely because Jean Louise is too apoplectic in her approach to convince us that she is a viable voice of reason and also because the small-town South of that decade was so rife with this type of commonplace racism that Jean Louise seems almost naive to be surprised by it. And yes, the characters suffer a bit due to being forced into pigeonholes, expected to represent certain belief systems and opinions, with little deviance from their appointed states.
Moreover, I had a problem with the choppy nature of the narrative. Many of the scenes that involved recollections were inspired vignettes of humor and charm, but they often had little to do with the story as a whole, and seemed to be anecdotes that had just been wedged into a story where they did not belong. Still, I was happy they were there, because they added so much warmth and nostalgia to a dark and confrontational subject. Additionally, I had a big problem with a scene near the end of the book where Uncle Jack deals with Jean Louise's defiance by literally "smacking some sense into her." In the book, this is accepted as a kind of necessary tactic Jack needed to use on a hysterical woman (and even Jean Louise seems to imply it was to her benefit), but I found it a disturbing occurrence of outright physical abuse, and it unnerved me almost as much as the debate about race and the talk of how "backwards" the "Negroes" were.
Which leads me to the final criticism of the book. Jean Louise purports to be the "good guy"of this book, the champion of civil rights, the voice of tolerance and equality, but, good as her intentions may be, she's a lackluster spokesperson. When Atticus challenges her late in the book about her own beliefs about race, she admits that the African-Americans are "backwards" and "like little children." This is disconcertingly just accepted as a given. She merely disagrees with him that it should preclude them from having equal rights. Not exactly a champion for the ages.
So, although my Atticus is no more, those of us who loved "To Kill a Mockingbird" are able to find a little solace in the plight of Jean Louise in "Go Set a Watchman." Like her, we too have come back after many years away. We have grown up and our views have changed or solidified. And like her, we have had to face the fact that a man we loved and idealized is no longer what we thought he was. Can we love this flawed, sullied, thoroughly human character now that we have seen his dark side? Or will we have to replace him with a new ideal? If the years between "Mockingbird" and "Watchman" have taught me anything, it is that nobody is perfect. But where will I ever find another Atticus? ...more
"Hellhound on His Trail" is a number of books in one. It is a detailed account of two men, one who changed the world with a hopeful message of non-vio"Hellhound on His Trail" is a number of books in one. It is a detailed account of two men, one who changed the world with a hopeful message of non-violence and equality, and one who changed the world with a gun. It is also a book that acts as a window onto another time, the late 60's in American culture, swirling with all of the defining elements that made this history possible. We get portraits of all the players: Johnson, Hoover, Abernathy, Bobby Kennedy, DeLoach, Wallace, Clark, - and a truly unflattering look at Jesse Jackson. It is a true crime book, giving us a victim and a villain, a murder and a manhunt, trace fibers and fatal mistakes. But, what I discovered while reading this book, was that it was also a haunting look at our own current national crises, a book that makes obvious the stains we have not yet erased and the lessons we have not yet learned. Yes, the book is much too unnecessarily detailed at times and certain parts are overly long while the ending seems strangely rushed, but these are minor flaws in a book that does so very many things - and does them well.
I did not experience the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and what I know of his impact and greatness came largely from history lessons and news clips. Hampton Sides remedied this for me. In an even-handed and meticulously researched account, he painted not the portrait of a saint, but of a man. Sides made sure that his portrait of King included his flaws and weaknesses (infidelities, long absences from home, misplaced affinities) as well as showing us his many amazing features (fierce loyalty, grace in the face of overwhelming odds, inability to hate, calming presence, inspirational demeanor, and eloquent message) - all the things we thought we knew to begin with and which proved to be more than accurate. Likewise, the author's portrait of the assassin James Earl Ray, proved to be layered and complex. Ray turns out to be an enigmatic character, equal parts uneducated racist hick and unexpected criminal mastermind, a fastidious dresser who takes dance lessons and reads self-help books, but who also routinely stays in flophouses and seeks the company of cheap prostitutes. Twice this bland, forgettable man who seemed to fade into the walls wherever he went managed to escape from maximum security prisons! Had those walls contained him the first time, maybe King would have lived to a ripe old age. We will never know.
The author was clearly determined to give the reader a full journalistic account of each man, the good with the bad. And yet, not surprisingly, King still emerges as more saint than man, while Ray emerges as a man so twisted by bigotry and ignorance that he could never have escaped its warp. What really hit home for me, though, is the way that divisive views in the country helped to color and incite the already vitriolic temperament of Ray and his ilk. That a horror of a man like George Wallace could have held such power and popularity at the time - and that so many other politicians and entrepreneurs could have espoused the same beliefs openly, and with pride, lends an ominous tone to the events, a prescience that this murder was destined to occur, something even King seemed to know would happen sooner or later.
I like to think modern sensibilities find it unconscionable that a climate of hatred like this could have been allowed to flourish in our so recent history. And then I look around at the current political landscape and hear people talking about building walls to keep out immigrants, refusing to understand the sad significance of confederate flags, refusing to bake a cake for a gay marriage due to "Christian" values, or balking at those who wish to assert that "Black Lives Matter."
The parallels to modern society in the book were impossible to ignore. I was particularly struck, in fact, by a passage that spoke to another current topic:
"As [U.S. Attorney General Ramsey] Clark sped toward Washington, he thought about America's historical penchant for gun violence...he hoped that the King assassination might quicken the debate on Capitol Hill, and he vowed to push for a policy requiring a permit to own a gun- especially high-powered rifles like a .30-06. "We are virtually unique among nations in our failure to control guns," he would write."
What a sad irony that now, almost half a century after the assassination of one of the most beloved (and to some, polarizing) figures in our history, the same issues still plague our nation and divide us as to our values and political beliefs. We are still beset with inadequate gun control laws, rampant inequality, racial discrimination, and violence of all kinds. Civil rights issues still dominate the headlines, stricter gun laws face powerful resistance from well-funded lobbies, and the ramifications of both issues continue to escalate.
In a climate of intolerance, we seem destined to breed more men like James Earl Ray. If this book has only one takeaway - that we need to heed the message that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us all those years ago or suffer the same unrest and violence that should have been left in our past by now - then it is well worth the read. A culture that allows a man like Ray to exist and thrive is a tragedy, and we are not so far removed from that climate right now. Ray pulled that trigger. There was no conspiracy. No powerful group funded his actions. No one hired him to do this evil deed. But make no mistake, many were complicit in the crime. As King's widow, Coretta, so aptly said at the time, "There were many fingers on the rifle." ...more
Well, I admit it. I bought into the hype. This book was touted in the media as "the "Gone Girl" of this summer!," and I am sorry to tell you that it iWell, I admit it. I bought into the hype. This book was touted in the media as "the "Gone Girl" of this summer!," and I am sorry to tell you that it is not, in fact, the "Gone Girl" of this summer or any other season. Whatever you may think of GG (I personally thought it was great), you have to admit that Gillian Flynn is a writer who knows how to craft a clever and engrossing story driven by exceptional character development, intricate plot points, and vivid details. "Disclaimer," on the other hand, is a book with only one real strength: its conceptual framework. But that alone may be enough to make this book worth reading, at least as a palette-cleansing quick summer read between more substantial works of fiction.
"Disclaimer" has a great little hook. What if you had a deep, dark secret from your past and you thought no one knew about it? Absolutely NO ONE. And then one day, a mysterious book showed up at your door and it held the story of your buried secret for all the world to read? What would you do to protect the shell of your privacy? How would you deal with this subtle form of terrorism from an unknown intruder into your personal life? "Disclaimer" has a truly interesting premise that sets the stage for the way this secret will begin to tear apart the lives of our main character and her family, beginning as a woman's desperate attempt to quash the story and discover its source and building to a twisted crescendo that reveals an even more surprising secret that I doubt even the most savvy reader could have seen coming.
With such a fantastic concept at its heart, one would think I would have given this book a higher rating. My problem with it was a stylistic one. I just felt that the characters were never truly fleshed out. They seemed to me rather two-dimensional, unremarkable people. I could never even picture them as entities in my head, (even though there were really only four main characters), and I just never got a sense of the inner lives of any of them. It was clear that the characters and their dialogue and any small event that occurred was really only calculated to continually drive the one plot point home. And, that's fine. I get it. To some extent, every book must revolve around its conceptual framework. But don't make the machinery so obvious to me. I don't want to see the Wizard behind the curtain in the Emerald City. Get me involved in the characters, make me care about them, and then...only then...will you drive your little hook into my heart.
That said, this book has not one, but two reveals - the second far more incredible than the first. I usually see a surprise or a plot twist coming from a mile away. I never once suspected the actual secret that would be revealed near the end of this book. Well done, Renee Knight, on surprising me. Now, if only I had cared more about the characters, had felt a little more invested in their lives and fates, perhaps instead of finding this book to be a mildly surprising suspense novel with a serviceable hook, I might have dubbed it "the "Gone Girl" of this summer." ...more
Writers are always looking for inspiration. Most of us know we will never write the Great American Novel, but we continue to write. Most of us also knWriters are always looking for inspiration. Most of us know we will never write the Great American Novel, but we continue to write. Most of us also know we will never make our living as writers, and so we work other jobs to pay the bills while writing in the bits and pieces of time not filled by other concerns. When we think of an author like Ann Patchett, who has made the leap, has written successful novels of depth and substance that also afford her to pay the bills and live her life as a writer, we may think she has had advantages that we do not. She has been carried along on a magic carpet ride of privilege and connections and lofty offers that could not possibly apply to any of us. And to some extent, that has been the case. Good schools, amazing mentors, the benefit of working with great writers who taught her so much. She did seem destined for greatness. Until her first teaching job went sour, and her marriage fell apart, and suddenly, she found herself back home living with her mom and waitressing at TGIF. Ann Patchett. Famous novelist. Waitressing at TGIF. Let that sink in for a moment.
If you are a fan of Ms. Patchett, like I am, and someone who writes (perhaps with the hope of publication), like I do, this little gem of a memoir (and I do mean little - you can read it in a couple of hours) is well worth your time. You will not learn anything new. You will learn that writing is about work, about time spent writing, about planning, about revision. We know the drill. But you will discover that even someone with every advantage can find herself down on her luck, in a dead-end job and a dead-end town, wondering how the hell to get out of there and pursue her life's dream. And rather than explore other options or settle for less, she decides to create her "getaway car" - the novel she needs to write to prove to herself that she can.
Along the way we learn that college does not prepare you for writing a novel. Nothing prepares you for writing a novel except writing one. All novelists have different approaches and styles for their process. None is better than another. There is no magic formula, no hard and fast rule. You just have to trust what works for you. If you want to write, you have to practice writing. Just like playing the cello.
None of this is news, but somehow, all of it, put together in the luminous yet pragmatic voice of Ann Patchett, becomes something more important than news, or tips, or how-to guides, or just whiling away the time as a famous author discusses her life. It becomes that most essential thing for writers. Inspiration. Which is why I feel I will read this small gift over and over again. While I work on my own "getaway car." ...more
Let me tell you how I know Gillian Flynn is the real deal. Prior to this book, I read a non-fiction book, the extremely well-written and well-researchLet me tell you how I know Gillian Flynn is the real deal. Prior to this book, I read a non-fiction book, the extremely well-written and well-researched "In the Heart of the Sea," a solid story with riveting characters and a compelling setting that kept me engaged throughout. So, the time came to choose my next book, and since I like to alternate between fiction and non-fiction, I chose a recently published suspense novel that had come highly recommended and well-received by critics and readers alike. Only it wasn't Gillian Flynn's novel - it was a different suspense novel, acclaimed by a different group of readers, and one whose name and author I will not mention here, as I intend to use it as my "before" picture in this particular "before and after" comparison. Halfway into the first chapter of this unnamed novel, I shut the book and sat for a moment, asking myself if I thought the book was poorly written or if it just paled in comparison to the book I had just read. Should I keep going? Give its lifeless pages another chance to improve? Ah, life is too short to read bad books when there are so many good ones out there beckoning, and there is so little time. So...I placed it on the backburner and turned to the next title in my queue, "Dark Places" by Gillian Flynn. I had read her novel "Gone Girl" last year and found it a pleasant surprise, the kind of book that becomes popular with a mass audience despite being non-formulaic, a real gem of well-crafted dialogue and superb character development all wrapped around a twisted little premise. I had liked it very much. So I started in and got to about the third sentence, when I realized, "Wow, what a difference! This lady can write. This book is already so much better than the bland, mediocre writing I encountered a few minutes ago." And things just kept getting better from there.
"Dark Places" is not the kind of book you want to read if you like warm and fuzzy stories about happy people living normal lives in relative comfort and safety. Flynn seems to have an affinity for tragic people in desperate situations trying to grasp a little piece of everyone else's seemingly normal existence. This tale deals with the sole survivor of a murdered family, trying to uncover the details of what happened that night twenty five years later. Libby Day was seven years old when her family was butchered in their farmhouse and she has been just floating through life ever since, never thinking about that night, staying away from the "Dark Place." Her testimony, however, was the main reason for the conviction of her teenage brother, Ben, and now, in her thirties, she is confronted with the concept that she may have been wrong. A truly intriguing premise that would have probably made a good story in the hands of any competent suspense writer, but Gillian Flynn has a way of bringing characters to life and writing scenes so vivid that they make you feel you are right inside the action, inside the heads of these people every step of the way.
The story jumps back and forth between 1985 (the days leading up to the murders) and the present (2009 as of its writing) - and the chapters alternate between three main characters and are told in the voice of each: Libby (now and in 1985), her mother Patty (murdered in 1985) and her brother Ben (in prison all these years). Some writers attempt this type of format and fail miserably, the time frame jumpy and hard to follow, the different characters muddying the waters, making the story feel choppy and unfocused. Flynn masters this format with a fluidity and seamlessness that make the transitions seem barely noticeable. Each character is a fully developed, well-defined entity with all of the flaws and strengths and quirks and unique personality traits that entails. In fact, with as dark a premise as this (a murdered family, a tragic survivor, a potentially innocent man imprisoned as a boy, and several other desperate people in unsavory sidebars) you would think this a depressing little read, heavy on the battle between good and evil, barely readable in its horrific details. But no, this is where Flynn manages a magical balancing act, somehow transcending horror, transcending genre, and flying in the face of preachy convention. She gives us a collection of people, real flesh and blood people, and says, "This is life. This is what can happen, even when everything seems to be normal. This could be you or any of us." And she makes us care what happens, because these characters are not unlike you and me, our neighbors, our coworkers. These are not hideous anomalies, pathetic victims, caricatures of terror. These are average folks in a normal existence until the unthinkable happens. And that's why Gillian Flynn is a writer that will most likely be writing compelling fiction for a long time to come. She doesn't write suspense thrillers. She writes about average people in unthinkable situations, just trying to cope, just trying to get past it. Because we all have at least one dark place, whether we want to admit it or not. ...more
I'm a sucker for stories about exploration and survival. My bookshelves are littered with them: "The Lost City of Z," "Into Thin Air,""The River of DoI'm a sucker for stories about exploration and survival. My bookshelves are littered with them: "The Lost City of Z," "Into Thin Air,""The River of Doubt," "Blue Latitudes," "The Perfect Storm," "The Terror." You hand me a book about shipping disasters or Amazonian perils or Shackleton or the search for the Northwest Passage, and if it is at all well-researched and readable, I am in. But find me one that references something I know, an area with which I am already familiar - and there is something even more tempting and immediate about its draw. That's why "In The Heart of the Sea" seems like a book that was custom written just for me. A thrilling true story about a shipping disaster in the 1800's that gives brilliant detail about the Nantucket seafaring community of the time, its uniquely constructed society, its dependence upon sperm whale oil for its financial success, all of the anthropological nuances of that culture brought to life, but also tells - in harrowing detail - the story of one tragic voyage, a voyage that would ultimately become the basis for one of literature's greatest novels, "Moby Dick."
Exhaustively researched, this book succeeds on many levels, largely due to its investment in the lives and fates of our main characters. Much the way Sebastian Junger made us experience (as if first-hand) the unique swordfishing community of Gloucester in his book "A Perfect Storm" and made it a place we could literally see in our mind's eye, populated with people we came to know and care about, so too does Nathaniel Philbrick bring the early Quaker enclave of Nantucket to life and attempt to describe the inner lives of the men who would go to sea on this ill-fated voyage, as well as those of the women left behind, often for two years at a time. The description of early Nantucket, in fact, was nearly as interesting as the description of the tragedy itself, one of those rare occasions when the backstory really is as essential to our understanding as the main event.
I won't get into specifics here, but the quest for sperm whale oil in the 1800s may have been one of the most dangerous and incomparably brutal occupations ever known to humans, and Philbrick describes the process in awe-inspiring detail. That every crew who sailed for that purpose did not suffer a similar fate is the true miracle of the tale. I will tell you this. This is not a book about a tragedy, it is a tale about a series of tragedies, each one more disheartening and insurmountable than the last. Be prepared for a dark voyage into corners of the human psyche few care to contemplate. Yes, there are glimmers of hope along the way, and yes, there is a great deal of history and adventure here. But at its heart, this is a tale of bad luck, poor decisions, and the truly dire consequences that can occur when those elements converge with the power of the sea and its creatures, unmoved by the desire of men to master and tame them. Every bad thing you can imagine happens in these pages. Even a few things you never dared to imagine. In less talented hands this would be a lurid tale of brutality, gore, death and despair. In Philbrick's hands, it is a thoughtful narrative on what living beings are able to endure, how our behaviors define us, and in the end, what constitutes humanity. ...more