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.

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Review: Single, Carefree, Mellow

  

Review for “Single, Carefree, Mellow” by Katherine Heiny (2015)

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Jesus, where do I start???

“Single, Carefree, Mellow” to describe this book is a hell of a misnomer, because not one of the characters in this collection of eleven short stories was single. All of Heiny’s characters are upper middle class, educated, young white women working in a writerly kind of job and married to or in a committed relationship to a nice, clueless guy who works in a tech field. Every single story (yes, every. single. one!) included a main character caught up in some form or another of adultery, usually with a slightly older man who also works in a writerly occupation. It was almost as if the author was using a formula here: introduce characters, insert some humorous descriptions, bleep bleep bloop…then onto the coup de grâce of the main character and her running partner going at it like rabbits in the backseat of a car. Yes. Really.

I can understand that a book has a common theme, but this was ridiculous. I’ve never read a short story collection in which the stories were so blandly repetitive, the characters so obnoxiously cliche. The women here were so indistinguishable from one another that it didn’t matter that Heiny used the second person narrative in several selections, or that the same character appeared in three different stories here in three different stages of her life. You don’t remember the characters’ names because they were so predictable and generic—the same voice, same character type. And since they’re all screwing their bosses or the dude they met on the Internet anyway, their affair part of the story becomes mindless, so beside the point. Like background noise, you ignore it. You move on, you don’t care.

Also weird was that no one in this book, not one single person, appeared to have any moral objections to all of this affair-having. Not that every person is a born again Bible thumper, but I found the total lack of empathy in each story strange, to the point where the characters were completely unrealistic. Not one of the significant others/husbands here seemed to be vaguely suspicious of their wife or girlfriend, and no one was ever discovered in their indiscretions. And always, after said affair was over, the protagonist seemed to go on with their daily lives as normal. Really?! Like, I had no idea that getting your rocks off with a guy you met on a plane while your husband’s on a bicycling trip was that simple. Wowzers!

Is infidelity among women this rampant in our society? After reading this book, if I wasn’t careful, I would believe so. However, I honestly believe that women are smarter than what Heiny portrays them as. The strangest part about it was that I actually did enjoy Heiny’s writing, she employs a fair amount of dark humor, which was a plus for me. There was also a very touching scene in one of the stories in which the character loses her dog after an illness, which left me kinda sore because this happened to me about three years ago (RIP Zoe). But that was the only scene that connected with me, it still wasn’t enough to save this crappy mess of a book. Glad I didn’t purchase this, thank God for libraries…

Review: Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty

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Review for “Yummy: the Last Days of a Southside Shorty” by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke (2010)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I was in high school back in 1994, and I remember the case of Robert “Yummy” Sandifer like it was yesterday. My parents used to get weekly subscriptions to TIME magazine back then and I remember staring at the young, barely preteen face in the mug shot on the cover thinking: how could this happen? How can an 11 year old child be both a murderer and a murder victim? Like the 1994 magazine cover, the child’s eyes on the front of this book stare directly at you and you can’t help but to stare back. His gaze is a direct challenge, his eyes are blank, hostile. It’s the coldest stare you’ve ever seen on an 11-year-old kid in your life.

TIME Magazine, September 19, 1994
TIME Magazine, September 19, 1994

I read that magazine article over and over again and even though I knew the facts of his brief life (abusive past, both of his parents were incarcerated, ran away from numerous foster homes, and had dozens of brushes with the law), the facts offered no comfort or clarity to my burning question of ‘why?’ In the years since, I have never forgotten the details of Yummy’s short, violent life, or his young face on the cover of a national news magazine.

Twenty years later as a middle school teacher, I had seen about a dozen ‘Yummys’ in my ten year teaching span. Not quite as violent at Robert, but the circumstances were the same–black male children living in hellish home situations, caught up in the ever-present, all consuming lure of gang life. I am also a parent myself, of an 11 year old son–ironically, the same age as the boy at the center of this novel. My interest in this case has never wavered over the years, so when I saw there was a graphic novel about Yummy’s life I jumped at the chance to read it.

This was an excellent book. It is narrated through a fictional bystander, a neighborhood child named Roger. It is illustrated in a clear, thoughtful way that allows you to fully understand through pictures the drama of that unfolded in the Roseland neighborhood of Chicago back in 1994. The tragic facts of Yummy’s life are presented once again but what is unique about this story is that it accurately showed the detrimental effect of abuse and neglect on Yummy’s life. We see that even though he killed a young girl and committed several other crimes, he was still a kid and in many ways, still a victim. Through Roger’s perspective, we witness another side of Yummy. We learn that he was a child who still carried and slept with a teddy bear, loved his Granny, felt fear, and cried often. It was facts like these and several others that were presented that grabbed me emotionally in such a way that I couldn’t help but to want to reach out and hug this child and sympathize with him. The author never pushed an agenda or preached, but left you to make up your own mind about whether or not Yummy was a cold hearted killer.

This book is undoubtedly a morality tale to warn kids away from the perils of gang life. I wish I had discovered this book years earlier as a teacher and presented it to my reluctant readers, who have no choice but to live in a violent, hopeless home environment like the one in which Yummy was raised. The ending is one of hope, though we know deep down that the problem of gangs aren’t going anywhere soon. This book, however, is a great start.

Review: what purpose did i serve in your life



Review for “what purpose did i serve in your life” by Marie Calloway

Rating: No rating

I can’t unwrap my head around this one, other than to say that I wish I could unread this book. I wish I could delete it from my Kindle and act like the front cover and the title didn’t intrigue me to download it in the first place. But I can’t. Boo.

As a feminist I wanted to like this, as I’m always interested in feminism and sex-positive stories are always a plus for me. But there was none of that to be had here. This book is painful, twisted, and just…so…ugly. And it’s frustrating, because you can see Calloway’s point, buried somewhere in the muck of her detached realism and ridiculous online posturing. I don’t necessarily have a problem with her writing about casual sex with rapey losers she meets on the Internet, but why? Why is she doing this? She never really gives a context for anything, just a contrived, artsy, “I need to explore this” kind of attitude. It’s not even fulfilling sex, it’s cruel, painful sex with men she barely knows that humiliate and hurts her physically and make her feel subhuman. She clearly uses demeaning sexual encounters with less than stellar men to define her self-worth and cope with insecurities and past sexual abuse. She hints several times at having Daddy issues, but just as she gets to something interesting, the self dialogue stops and she abruptly stops the narrative. 

Her refusal to connect the dots between her emotional detachment and her sexual encounters seem to suggest that Calloway is merely interested in exposure of a prurient variety, i.e., pathological exhibitionism. In that vein, this book gives more than what you need. There are shots of Calloway nude, of her covered in bruises from a “bdsm” encounter, of her with a mouthful of semen, you get the picture. There is nothing inherently brave or noble she achieves in showing us this–it just makes her an attention whore, and an honest one at that. I want to send a memo to Miss Calloway that writing about sex in graphic terms (with photo proof to back it up) while being young and female isn’t provocative anymore, nor is it particularly interesting. At 200 pages, given the topic, this book still manages to drag, and some sections I skipped altogether. I wanted to put it down many times, and not because it shocked me, but because it bored the hell out of me.

This book did nothing for me at all. What would be shocking for me would be an emotionally healthy Marie, writing about sex in a way that reflected that mind state. But being normal doesn’t bring Internet fame these days, does it? Tsk, tsk…

Review: The Returned

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Review for “The Returned” by Jason Mott

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

(Spoilers ahoy!)

I got through about 175 pages of this book before I stopped.

It starts off interesting and intriguing enough—long dead people, for some unknown reason, begin to come back to life. Why they have returned and how they become one of the Returned is never explained. The book makes it clear that they are not zombies, and that they look and function as normal people despite the fact that they’ve died, in many cases, years before. They reappear years later, often half a world away from where they died, and a government agency known as the ‘Bureau’ returns them to their families. The book takes off with this and then, well….that’s it.

The majority of the story is told through Lucille and Harold Hargreaves, an elderly couple in rural America whose 8 year old son Jacob is returned after drowning over 40 years ago. Lucille happily picks up parenting where she left off, while Harold broods over it for several chapters. Their son Jacob is, well…Jacob. He tells corny jokes and eats his mom’s cooking. But that’s about it. He’s the boring-est resurrected person alive (literally). What is the author’s point of writing this novel if the main character at the heart of the mystery never says anything—about death or life or how they got there in the first place? The point where I stopped reading is when Jacob is eventually locked in an internment camp and is asked the same how-and-why questions by soldiers that he couldn’t answer from the beginning. Obviously the author is trying to make some political point here with the internment angle, but I could have cared less. If nothing behind the mystery of The Returned is ever revealed, what is the point of locking him up? Yawn.

I guess I expected more from this book. It is the same book, apparently, that the current ABC show “Resurrection” is based upon, and the ho-hum nature of this book doesn’t make me want to watch the show to find out either. There was no momentum and the story fell flat. I wanted science to make an appearance, to say something (anything!) to make this book readable but it didn’t. None of the characters had any real life to them at all. Ugh.

Review: The Orchard of Lost Souls

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Review for “The Orchard of Lost Souls” by Nadifa Mohamed
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Man, this woman can write. I had never heard of Nadifa Mohamed until I wandered into the library one afternoon and casually picked up this book.

The setting of this book is one that I have to admit that I knew very little about, Somalia in the late 1980s. The country was pretty much under a Communist dictatorship until they were attacked by rebel forces with innocent civilians caught in the middle. All of these events foreshadow the widespread famine and the “Black Hawk Down” disaster that most Americans are familiar with, and I enjoyed the fact that even though the book was fiction, it was somewhat of a history lesson as well without being boring or coming off too preachy.

The book is told through Deqo, a young orphan, Kawsar, a well off woman who is treated brutally by the police, and Filsan, a female officer within the ranks of the Somalian armed forces. The book started off a bit slow and difficult to follow at first, but once the voices of three main characters became more distinct I could not put this book down. This book has a quick pace and the stories are fascinating, and Mohamed does an excellent job with making you actually feel like you’re right there in the middle of the village of Hargeisa with her. Of course I don’t want to give the book away, but it was certainly a worthy read for me.

Review: The Opposite of Loneliness

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Review for “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book behooves me. The tragic backstory of it makes it somewhat critic-proof: to rip it to shreds is just plain heartless, and to sing its praises is to remain oblivious to what’s on the pages. We’re all suckers for tragedy, and that seems to be what draws us to Marina’s book. I gave this book three stars, and honestly, that was being generous.

First off, lemme say that there were some ok pieces in here. Keegan’s fiction is far better than her nonfiction, the latter part of which I largely skipped over. The problem with this book is that Marina is just so…young. There’s a blurb at the beginning of the book from one of Marina’s professors that mentions that the magic in her writing resides in the fact that her works resounds with the voice of a 20 year old. And my God, it does. There’s very little here in the predictable characters and pre-packaged endings to marvel at because it sounds like everyone else’s in a college writing workshop. Her prose isn’t particularly insightful and takes no risks. She has so much room to grow as a writer that I shudder to think of the many young writers out there whose work is far better, who, because they lacked the proper connections, didn’t have a job waiting for them at The New Yorker upon graduation.

In an ideal world, this book would not have ever been published. Because in an ideal world, Marina Keegan would not have died at 22. She would have graduated college, seen her existence beyond the confines of her privileged upbringing, and she would have grown out of her wide-eyed, precocious fascination with the real world. And I can’t blame her, my writing was probably this trite at 22 also. I imagine someone far younger than me would love this, so I read this fairly quickly and returned it to the library.