Quote of the Week

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as collective conscience.”

Despite the ratchet mess that was Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee did manage a few good quotes here. The one that stands out the most was spoken by Jean Louise’s Uncle Jack toward the end of the book when he reminds her that, ultimately, everyone is responsible for their own individual actions. If Atticus is the morality at the center of To Kill a Mockingbird, in Watchman, Jean Louise now assumes her own distinct identity. This “new identity” taken on by Jean Louise isn’t without its own set of issues, as evidenced in the review on this book I wrote a couple of days ago. 🙂

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Review: Last Winter, We Parted

  
Review for “Last Winter, We Parted” by Fuminori Nakamura (2014)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

I love Japanese fiction–it’s dark, mysterious, poetic. It takes risks, it terrifies, it ponders the universe. It pushes you out of your comfort zone of comfortable characters and predictable plots. I try to read a diverse selection of literature, but I do admit I have a soft spot for Japanese writers.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like this book. The plot is alright enough: a writer goes to interview a convicted killer, a renowned photographer named Kiharazaka who is on death row for the murder of two women by setting them ablaze. His investigation leads him to a doll maker who makes life sized dolls (weird), to an underground group of life sized doll lovers (weirder), and eventually into a sexual relationship with the condemned man’s sister (the weirdest). He tries to back out of the project, but he is so obsessed by the photographer’s story that he can’t wrench himself free. There is a twist at the end that I won’t give away–other than to say that it’s kookier than a David Lynch movie, and I’ve watched a lot of those. 

Even though the writer was obsessed with Kiharazaka’s story, I wasn’t. There is nothing in this book to engage you, the writing is bland and lacks variety. If I had a stiff drink for every time the author writes that the main character has to “light a cigarette,” “smile,” or “look concerned” I’d be more than three sheets to the wind by page 25. The characters move about the story as lifeless, one dimensional beings. There is an attempt by the author to create a back story, but it’s nothing short of dull and just plain confusing. The structure of this novel also presents a problem, because it mixes the protagonist’s first person narration with Kiharazaka’s narration, as well as related documents and diaries from other characters. It was damn near impossible for me to figure out who was saying what. 

The only reason I didn’t give this book one star is because I recognize that this book was translated from Japanese. This is often the problem with foreign novels, some styles and nuances of the story are simply not going to be carried over and understood, no matter how sincere the translator’s intention. I understand the author’s main point behind this book, but the poor execution here can’t be ignored. Would not read again.

Review: Go Set a Watchman

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Review for “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee (2015)

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

— Warning: Spoilers ahoy! —

Go Set a Watchman is not a sequel. What it is, is the first draft of a book Harper Lee wrote in 1957 before her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird that was initially rejected by publishers. In reading the first chapter of this, I completely understand why Watchman is not a good book. It presents a challenge for me to write a review on it here, because Harper Lee probably never intended to have this work see the light of day. As a writer myself, I am of the opinion that a first draft is hardly considered a ‘novel’ because it is not yet a completed product. Even the publisher considered this book to be “more of a series of anecdotes” than a fully conceived novel. Therefore, the designated title of ‘novel’ for Watchman is deceptive and debatable at best. For all intents and purposes, I didn’t read this as a novel or a sequel, but as a historical snapshot of a certain era in American history.

As a novel, however, Watchman fails, and fails miserably. There are poor quality, hurriedly printed, standard YA fare that are better than this. It is completely bland and lacks the personality and the colorful, rich dialogue of Mockingbird. In this book, Jean Louise is a spoiled, narcissistic young adult. There is a faint trace of a plot, which I’ll discuss later, but the simplicity of it is highly problematic. Attempts at humor on the part of any of the characters fall woefully flat. The writing is terribly scattered and confusing, and narration wanders aimlessly between 1st and 3rd person, past and present tense.

What can be gleaned from the faint glimmer of the plot of this book is this: Jean Louise learns that her father, Atticus, is not who she thought he was. They argue (the climax of this book). She accepts him anyway. End of novel. In between are flashbacks of Scout as a child, of her brother Jem (who is now deceased), and Dill, only in Watchman these accounts are unfocused, muddled, and boring. We learn a little about Scout’s transition into womanhood, but that’s about it. Some characters reappear from Mockingbird such as Uncle Jack, Calpurnia, and Aunt Alexandra. Noticeably absent are characters such as Boo Radley, Miss Crawford, Dolphus Raymond, and several others.

There is very little in this book that characterizes Atticus Finch, the titular character, other than what we already know from Mockingbird and what we observe on the surface. Twenty years after the greatness of Mockingbird, Atticus is now a lonely, arthritic racist. Other than this, the Atticus of Watchman is a flat character. The climax of this book is an argument between Jean Louise and Atticus, in which we are only told by Harper Lee how to feel Atticus, then to change our minds and feel differently. Just as Jean Louise learns Atticus isn’t who he truly is, white readers learned last week that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t necessarily the book that they loved as children.

Because this book functions as a historical snapshot, the race and class politics of this book cannot be ignored. White supremacy is in plain view all over Watchman. Jean Louise, we learn, is opposed to the recent Supreme Court decision that ‘separate but equal’ is unconstitutional. She feels as if no ‘respectable’ white person would ever marry a Negro. She is also frustrated at Calpurnia at her perceived disloyalty to her, for daring to care more about her own grandson than memories of raising her. Her and Atticus both despise the NAACP and feel that the government has no right to tell white Southerners what to do. The foundation of her attitude is that Negroes are inferior, and whites are intellectually superior. Although it appears that Jean Louise has a more progressive view on race than her father, it really isn’t.

As previously stated, the real interesting part of this book is the climax–the argument between Jean Louise and Atticus. Atticus remains calm throughout, however, after the argument, Uncle Jack slaps her. Jean Louise learns that, as a woman, the beliefs of white men are to be respected and will be imposed upon her, even through violence. Patriarchy is the law of the Finch household, and if she is to stay there, she must submit to it. There is no compromise to be made here, as Atticus and Uncle Jack never compromise their racist beliefs. Jean Louise reluctantly learns to listen, even though she somewhat disagrees as to what role blacks should play in their community. 

By conceding to hateful beliefs, Jean Louise tolerates racism, as well as respects those who practice it, because they are, in her view, ‘decent’ white people. Atticus is a white supremacist, but since he is a “nice racist” (after all, he did defend that colored boy, Tom Robinson), Jean Louise is content to maintain a more humanistic view of Atticus and respect him, and we as readers, fifty years later, should too.

My response? Hell no.

Hate, in any form, is not respectable and does not deserve tolerance. It is fascinating that this argument still exists today, with people who feel that their religious beliefs should go before others who ask for tolerance. Hate is simply not acceptable and should not be tolerated. By her silence toward the status quo, Jean Louise really isn’t all that much different from Atticus. The message that we should should carry here is that we as a society still haven’t evolved much, fifty years later.

Many people are shocked and disgusted to find that Atticus has “changed ” in this book. The thing is, Atticus hasn’t changed, he has always held racist beliefs. But like young Scout, readers are too blinded by their saintlike regard for Atticus that they ignored this, or simply did not see it. I, too, gave Atticus way too much credit here. Big mistake.

It is hard to believe that same author of this book could craft something with the beauty and dexterity of To Kill a Mockingbird in just two years. It is indeed a remarkable feat in and of itself, as well as my guess that she also probably had one hell of an editor the second time around, as this book lacks one.

Two stars here. I refuse to give Watchman one star, I respect Harper Lee too much. If anything, the hot mess of this book makes me clutch To Kill a Mockingbird all the more tighter and treasure it for the gem that it truly is, and to learn to understand the contradictions that make us all human.

Quote of the Week

We had to have humor. It is human nature. No matter how bad the situation is, if you can’t find any humor then life is not worth it.

– Benson Deng, Alephonsion Deng & Benjamin Ajak, They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky

They Poured Fire On Us From the Sky is a true story about a group of three boys who were a part of the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a group of children who faced extraordinary odds (starvation, the loss of their parents and families, disease, animal attacks, and war) during the war in Sudan in the late 1990s. The book chronicles how they managed to survive the horrors of war and follows them as they seek (and eventually find) asylum in America. 

When I read this book a couple of months ago I gave it five stars. It is quite extraordinary, as I had to keep reminding myself that these were just little boys going through these horrific experiences, not adults. I also found myself checking the boys’ picture on the back flap to constantly reassure myself that they are indeed still alive and that many years have passed since the events described in the book. The resilience of this book is inspiring, that children can rely on humor during the worst time of their lives is nothing short of awesome.

Review: Vinegar Hill

  
Review for A. Manette Ansay’s “Vinegar Hill” (1994)

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I am going to start this review by saying that the fact that “Vinegar Hill” was an Oprah’s Book Club pick didn’t deter me from reading it. I think a lot of people are passing up some great books because of the stigma of bad quality that surrounds her book club, even to this day. I’ve read several of her club offerings and found them to be hit or miss–much in the same fashion as any random book you’d find in literary fiction. Do people seriously expect EVERY book that Oprah recommends will be great? Perhaps, due to her larger than life persona, we expect too much of Oprah. Books are still a matter of personal preference, and Oprah’s tastes don’t always have to match mine. Lol, please…

Anyway, I actually really liked this book. A lot of reviewers use the words “bleak” and “depressing” to describe the tone of this book, and these words are very accurate. The story centers on Ellen and James, a married couple with two children, who fall on hard financial times and are forced to move in with James’ parents. Their home is a harsh, loveless place, where secrets are kept and Fritz (James’ father) rules through cruelty and intimidation. The whole time I read this I could feel the tension in the house building and building until Ellen makes a drastic choice and you’re able to find some sense of relief at the end. 

I also thought Ms. Ansay did an excellent job with the setting of this book. Religion, specifically the family’s strict, traditional Catholic faith, also played an important role in this story. Back in 1972, people simply did not divorce. Women were responsible for maintaining their household, no matter how miserable they were and that was it. This book explores this dynamic, and it affected me deeply, even though some parts were tough to read. I’m glad the author made this a short book, if it were 50 pages longer I couldn’t see myself continuing to endure the character’s suffering. 

Quote of the Week

There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.  

– Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls, p.64

I remember when I was in high school and I visited this Buddhist temple on a field trip. When one of my classmates raised his hand to ask about whether Buddhists believe in the concept of original sin, the monk who was guiding the tour smiled and replied that “people aren’t born bad or born good. They’re just born.” 

I think about the response the monk gave a lot in my adult life because I think it’s only natural for us to characterize the people we encounter on a daily basis as good or bad. For example, a relationship ends bitterly and we immediately deem that person as “bad.” Although it appears that way according to our perspective, that’s just what it is: your individual perspective. People are ultimately flawed. Good and evil can and does coexist within us all.