I hadn't planned on reading this because of the controversy over its publication, but something about the On Point segment about it made me suddenly dI hadn't planned on reading this because of the controversy over its publication, but something about the On Point segment about it made me suddenly determined to get right to it.
This might be the hardest book I've ever reviewed. So much of the reading is tied up in our previous knowledge of To Kill a Mockingbird, so it is really 100% impossible to read it as a separate work. There's also the challenge of reading it as a novel that was written to be published in the mid-20th century. A lot of the parts that I thought could use some fleshing out (largely discussing the Supreme Court, Tenth Amendment Rights, and the NAACP) probably would have seemed sufficiently described to a 1950s reader. I feel like I need to get a little more background info, since one of the guests on On Point said that this novel could never have been published in the 1950s -- but what makes it so much more controversial than To Kill a Mockingbird, I couldn't say. There are also several inconsistencies between the two books (including Atticus's potential racism, which I don't think I want to get into), but again, Mockingbird grew out of Watchman which was then no longer intended for publication.
To get to the book... I really loved a lot about it. Considering it was published as originally written, it was incredible. I found the writing to be truly evocative, more than I found To Kill a Mockingbird (which I last read October 2014). This was also the best-ever use of ellipses I've ever seen in literature. Lee uses them when Jean Louise is in situations where lots of people are talking, largely on the same theme or inane subjects. It really emphasizes how repetitive and almost sheep-like the people of Maycomb are, as well as Jean Louise's feelings of disconnection, anger, and general incomprehension among them. Hard to describe, but it makes perfect sense when you read it.
I have read that Lee's original publisher thought it wasn't a fully conceived novel, but rather a series of anecdotes. That's partially true, but I also thought that storytelling strategy was what made it so effective as a novel. Her writing is so vivid that as she jumps around -- from Jean Louise's present to her young adulthood to her girlhood and back and forth again -- the reader gets a well-formed mosaic of her life in the town and how both she and it came to be where they are. Really skillfully done by a woman who truly knew her craft. Now I have finally come to understand why so many people lament that she didn't write anything after Mockingbird.
So that's a lot about the writing. As for the subject matter, I found it to be much more subtle than Mockingbird (which is partially why I don't understand why it would have been more controversial). It takes nearly half of the book for the issue of race to really arise. (Before that, it is largely about how Jean Louise doesn't quite fit in Maycomb and maybe never did.) When it does come up, Jean Louise stews on it and it doesn't come to a head until the end, when the whole last section could be seen as suddenly very preachy -- except it somehow doesn't feel that way, at least to me. Part of what I liked so much in this book is that Lee used the issue of racism as one where Jean Louise draws the line of right and wrong and really comes into her own as an individual rather than an extension of Atticus. (Ok, fine. I'll talk Atticus's racism. Is he racist? Maybe. He says himself that he's more concerned with the law and well-functioning government, and uneducated blacks would hinder this in his view. And he doesn't offer any progressive solutions. So he's not exactly the Atticus that everyone loves from Mockingbird, but in a way he is more human and a more accurate reflection of his times. Plus, he is 72 in this novel, and people change. Ok, enough for his parenthetical.)
The characters are wonderfully imagined in this novel, and even with the discrepancies (Atticus) they feel familiar. Jean Louise's flashbacks evoke a sort of nostalgia because we know that crazy tomboy Scout. Her aunt (Miss Manners), uncle (over-educated and slightly addled), and gentleman friend Henry (always going to be from the wrong side of the tracks) all add a lot to the story as well. With great precision (using word and action rather than relying on description), Lee paints a clear portrait of the South's residents without over-simplifying or stereotyping. Subtly and skill are the words that keep popping into my head.
When I first finished this book, I told myself I'd wait to rate it after I wrote a review and could "see" what I really thought about it. I assumed it would land smack at a solid 3/3.5 (as Mockingbird always has since I first read it), but it seems I was more impressed than I thought! And now I feel like I need to go reread Mockingbirdagain and actually jot down reactions this time, because surely I didn't like this controversial work more than the one that was originally published! Perhaps Lee's style for this novel was ahead of her time, and it just needed to wait until 2015, the time of non-linear narratives.
Lee is a peerless voice in Southern literature. In her last interview in the 1960s, she said she wanted "to leave some record of small-town, middle-class Southern life." She certainly did that, and I really wish she'd recorded more.
*It might be of interest to read the one published review by a black person, which I found very insightful.*
**Another interesting review that captures some things really well: "Mockingbird is the feels. Go Set A Watchman is the truth."**...more
Part of me just wants to say this wasn't the book for me. But a larger part of me is saying, "Who the heck is this book for?!" As advertised, it is abPart of me just wants to say this wasn't the book for me. But a larger part of me is saying, "Who the heck is this book for?!" As advertised, it is about the intersection of violence, sex, and art. But it all felt largely gratuitous. The style was this forced literary thing where all of the characters had jobs instead of names - The Writer, The Photographer, The Poet, The Playwright, The Filmmaker, The Painter, and, central to the story, The Girl. Firstly, if a majority of artists are so self-involved and downright ridiculous, I'm glad I don't know many. (The few I do know couldn't be more different.) Narcissism runs rampant - well, I guess they're more in love with their art than themselves, but they are also oversexed in a selfish sort of way. And though the horror of The Girl's life is treated as art in the story in a way that is clearly supposed to be social commentary, it still felt like Luknavitch was doing the same thing.
For those doing readers' advisory, major red flags here: graphic sex and violence (both involving way more bodily fluid than I want to read about) as well as lots of language. Yikes. ...more
An absolutely astounding work. Atkinson's writing is beautiful. Following Ursula Todd through her alternate lives is both entertaining and thought-proAn absolutely astounding work. Atkinson's writing is beautiful. Following Ursula Todd through her alternate lives is both entertaining and thought-provoking. What if the smallest change in one life could change the world? How do choices change the course of our own history and that of others? I found myself frequently setting this book down to turn ideas over in my mind or savor a turn of phrase. Really, I can't do it justice so I won't even try. I will say that I predict this will be the best book of the year....more
Okay, I really liked the concept. The writing was quite good. I liked how the stories weren't really connected, yet every now and then a painting fromOkay, I really liked the concept. The writing was quite good. I liked how the stories weren't really connected, yet every now and then a painting from one story was mentioned in another story (and they're all mentioned in the last story, which takes place in the future). I liked that there were some real paintings, then some fictional photographs, which were based on real carte de vistes and Flikr photos. And I liked how there was a futuristic story to tie things together. But in the end, I just thought the book was okay. Part of that, I must admit, is because the author doesn't use quotation marks at all, and there is A LOT of dialogue. It is absolutely maddening. I did get more used to it as I read, but it made the book more challenging to read. Since the subject is clearly supposed to be thought-provoking/-inspiring, that one small detail really threw me out of the world of the book and kept me from pondering as I felt I ought to be. And on top of that, I just didn't feel much connection to, or sympathy with, the characters. Of all the stories, I think I most enjoyed Pieter Janssens Elinga, Woman Reading, 1668. And the reason I liked that one was because the main character a young deaf servant in the household of the painter, was the most sympathetic of all the characters. I also liked the young girl in Unknown, For Pleasure, 1916, who reminded me a bit of Briony in Atonement with her restlessness, desire for something to happen, and confusion about love. Otherwise, I was disappointed with my reaction to this book. It had so much promise, but just didn't quite get there....more
I went back and forth between "okay" and "like" on this one. It's very literary. It's got some very poetic descriptions (some of which are beautiful aI went back and forth between "okay" and "like" on this one. It's very literary. It's got some very poetic descriptions (some of which are beautiful and some of which are a stretch). It's definitely a slow-paced read, which starts out nice but ends up frustrating. The last 100 pages I found much more engaging, which is why I leaned toward 3 stars instead of 2, but it just took me way too long to get to that point.
The concept of contrasting two different relationships in two different centuries was a good one. The beauty and the terror of the Arctic compared to the mild ennui of suburban England was a good contrast too.
An enjoyable book, if you have the patience to enjoy it....more
This has to be one of the most bizarre books I've ever read. It's a good read, though shockingly slow. It also felt like three very distinct books.
InThis has to be one of the most bizarre books I've ever read. It's a good read, though shockingly slow. It also felt like three very distinct books.
In the first part, American witch and science (specifically alchemy) historian Diana is doing research at Oxford's Bodleian Library. There she meets vampire and scientist Matthew. She also stumbles upon a bewitched book thought to be lost for centuries. So this first part of the novel has that academic suspense feel (it reminded me of something, maybe The Historian or The Book of Spies?) and there's a lot of science and science history. There's also the obvious beginnings of a courtship between the two, although a romance would be taboo. In this first part, you accept that there are supernatural creatures walking among us, and it doesn't seem that strange.
When Diana is threatened, Matthew whisks her off to the family home in France. This is a big "getting to know the vampires" section, and the supernatural seems much further removed from the everyday. The science gives way more to history here, and the romantic tension (which still seems so faint) begins to increase.
When Diana and Matthew return to Diana's home in New York, it's a big "getting to know the witches" section, and the supernatural finally seems downright otherworldy. (It's like the contrast between Harry Potter accidentally blowing up his aunt and the sheer volume of magic that takes place when he gets to Hogwarts. That's the best comparison I can give.)
But like I said, this is one of a kind--it's almost academically scientific and historical, it philosophically examines racism, it includes a hint of romance and suspense, its characters are frightfully complex (one so old he's carrying around centuries of baggage and the other so new to her powers that she's practically coming of age)... It's a pretty slow but steady read, and I think it was worth the time it took in the end.
I don't want to give away the ending, but the last 10 pages have really made me look forward to the second book, which is going to have a lot to do with a subject of great interest to me, it seems....more
Even though I'm a big historical fiction reader, the '60s have just never interested me all that much. Add to that the subject of race and the repressEven though I'm a big historical fiction reader, the '60s have just never interested me all that much. Add to that the subject of race and the repressed guilt of a Southerner, and this book just did not make my to read list. However, after having several people (with quite varied reading tastes) tell me how wonderful this book was, I had to read it. And I do not regret it one bit.
It really was nearly indescribable. Stockett captures the time and the people as if she was a fly on the wall with a video camera in Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. There is clearly autobiographical writing at work in the characters of Miss Skeeter (an aspiring writer who doesn't quite fit in with her fellow white society ladies) and Mae Mobley (a toddler whose mother doesn't seem to love her but whose maid does). However, my favorite chapters were the ones told from the point of view of Aibilee and Milly. Stockett captured the rhythm and flavor of the black maids' voices in a way that seemed realistic but not racist. (I would love to hear a black woman's opinion of the narration in particular and the novel in general.) My favorite line was when Milly said that if she'd played Mammy (in Gone with the Wind), she would have told Miss Scarlett that she could stick those green curtains up her little white pooper. Priceless.
You would think that the characters would come out 2-dimensional and stereotyped, but that wasn't the case at all. Most of them had facets that surprise the reader. The primary exception was Hilly, who really was just a self-centered, hateful, racist society cow. Her close-mindedness wasn't limited just to blacks, however.
As I said before, it's hard to put my feelings about this book into words. I'm shocked that a white woman who was raised by black domestic help in the South would have the courage to write a book like this, much as it is shocking that the help in her novel would have the courage to write the book that they do. When I finished (a little too easy of an ending, when Medgar Evers was murdered down the street from Aibilee), I found myself contemplating this. And then I read the author's note at the end, which I think you absolutely must read if you read the novel. Setting a perfect tone, she briefly relates her childhood, her concerns about writing the book, and why she wrote it. Her note quickly put an end to that fruitless contemplation, and now I can return to thinking about the lives of her characters and how distant and yet frighteningly close 1962 Jackson seems.
I was so excited for the new Michael Cunningham. I thought The Hours, A Home at the End of the World, and Specimen Days were all wonderful. By NightfaI was so excited for the new Michael Cunningham. I thought The Hours, A Home at the End of the World, and Specimen Days were all wonderful. By Nightfall has the same beautiful prose, but it lacks many elements that make the others great.
For one, the characters just aren't that likable. In every other one of his novels, I could find something to relate to or sympathize with in every man, woman, gay, straight, young, old, contemporary, historic person. In By Nightfall, I found Peter to be pathetic, his wife flat, and his brother-in-law a whiny child.
I also like Cunningham for the deep ideas he can effortlessly mix into his stories. In this case, it was more like he was trying to mix a story into his deep idea, and it was unsuccessful. There was too much thinking about life and beauty and not enough life and beauty actually happening. On top of that, the constant musing nature let to redundant vocabulary--evanescent, crepuscular, ineffably. I like a perfect word as much as (if not more than) the next person, but when I start noticing the same words being repeated, that tells me you're trying to stretch a 30-page idea into a 230-page novel. Kind of jarring.
Perhaps I shouldn't fault Cunningham for trying to move on and do something new (based on this novel, perhaps HE is having an existential crisis over the nature of his own art), but at the same time, I really miss the triangular, interweaving stories that spoke more to me than this forceful presentation of a theme....more
This one was difficult. To be honest, I probably would have given up after about 100 pages, but I'd heard so many great things about it. My frustratioThis one was difficult. To be honest, I probably would have given up after about 100 pages, but I'd heard so many great things about it. My frustration in the early pages was mostly due to the fact that I just wanted the kids to be born already, plus I had had quite enough graphic blood and guts, thank you.
After the first 100 pages or so, it was all ups and downs. I really loved some parts, but some parts I found to be less than engaging. I loved it, I was tired of it. I loved it, I was tired of it. Once Marion got to New York, I loved the rest of the book, so it ended on a good note. I just think that Verghese had such a great concept and great themes but his focus on the human body and its frailties took a lot away from the focus on the brothers' relationship. He could have done so much more there, which I found frustrating. He did have some great characters, as many reviewers have mentioned. I especially liked Ghosh and Genet. (Genet more as a character than as a person, if that makes sense.) But I felt like I didn't know Marion as well as I should have considering that he was the narrator. I mean, I knew him well, but I wanted to know him more. And Shiva felt equally distant. I don't know, it's hard to explain my frustration.
This is a hopelessly vague and useless review, I know. I rarely have such mixed feelings about a book, especially with such a difficult time quantifying them! Anyway, it was good. I think that this might have been a case of expectations sabotaging reality....more
Expectations are the bane of my reading life. First, look at the cover of this book. Then read the description. Next, the reviews that tell you it's aExpectations are the bane of my reading life. First, look at the cover of this book. Then read the description. Next, the reviews that tell you it's a book lover's book. How can one such as me not expect this to be the best book of all time?
Well, it was good. It was far from what I expected, but it was good. The writing is beautiful. The gothic feel is undeniably strong. Reading this was like reading a Victorian novel in terms of mood and setting and writing and even character, but much better because it lacked the yawn factor. (Oh no, secret's out! While I do enjoy some classics, I really struggle to read them sometimes. I am not a good book snob. At all.) In addition to all of this, the story really grabbed me from the beginning. The main character wasn't really that interesting or even sympathetic (despite her personal tragedies), but the subject of her biography was a compelling woman. Trying to piece together Vida Winter's life story with repeated reprimands for asking questions or getting ahead of the story makes for an absolute page-turner.
So why only 3 stars? Again, the expectations and the reality did not work well together for this book. Also, I found myself at the end saying, "What? WHAT? WHAT???????" I didn't like that unsettled feeling I had, like I had read this entire work and then completely missed huge points of the story. Or THE point, even. (I feel like this is the kind of book you really need to read twice, once to find out what happens and once to dissect the little pieces to find out WHY it did.) Really, I think I'd like to read this again one day, knowing what to expect, in a different mindset, etc. Because I can tell from the first reading that it really is a quality novel....more
Totally different from The Time Traveler's Wife, but Her Fearful Symmetry shares some of the appeal characteristics – incredibly drawn characters, a sTotally different from The Time Traveler's Wife, but Her Fearful Symmetry shares some of the appeal characteristics – incredibly drawn characters, a strangely believable fantastical/supernatural element, a life-like setting (excuse the pun, at least as it relates to Highgate Cemetery), and a stunningly unique, emotional, slightly tragic, but somehow beautiful story.
Of course, one of the things I love about Niffenegger (and the reason I was beyond disappointed by the film version of TTTW) is her beautiful and literary writing. She has such a way with words. (Consider the pun in the title. Her Fearful Symmetry refers to the strained relationship between a set of twins, as well as the strained relationship between their mother and aunt, also twins. On the other hand, it also refers to some fearful things that happen around Highgate… And the British pronunciation of “cemetery” sounds remarkably like “symmetry.” Just one example of her remarkable command of language.)
The themes of life, death, obsession/compulsion, and the ties that bind people together made it all the more fascinating. On top of that, Niffenegger didn’t conclude the book until she put two, three, four (depending on how you want to count) shocking twists at the ending. The big reveal of the decades-old family secret (a shock in itself) paled in comparison to what happened next. This book will surprise and fascinate you, and the ending (especially the last two sentences) will leave you a little stunned that it’s over. I absolutely loved it....more