To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

curly wolfI had some problems with To Kill a Mockingbird.

One of my summer reading projects has been reading Harper Lee’s novel in tandem with Truman Capote’s first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms. (See earlier posts here and here.) The two authors, who knew each other as children and remained close friends well into adulthood, each based a character on the other in their first novels. The character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird is commonly agreed to be based on the young Truman Capote.

There were a couple of points in To Kil a Mockingbird when Harper Lee’s characterization of Dill seemed prophetic. Of the three children in the book, Dill is the one who cannot stand to witness what happens to Tom Robinson in the courtroom.  The miscarraige of justice and the ill-treatment Tom recieves reduce Dill to uncontrollable tears.   Is this an echo of how the grown-up Truman Capote felt about Perry Smith the murderer whom Capote wrote about in In Cold Blood.

The day after the trial, Jem and Scout’s aunt takes Dill to task for his bad attitude towards  his own aunt:

“Don’t talk like that, Dill,” said Aunt Alexandra.  “It’s not becoming to a child.  It’s–cynical.”

“I ain’t cynical, Miss Alexandra.  Tellin’ the truth’s not cynical, is it?”

“The way you tell it, it is.”

As the child goes, so goes the man, but this sure sounds like the adult Truman Capote who got himself into so much trouble repeating things his high society friends told him in cofidence.  Later, in one of Dill’s final scenes, he tells Jem and Scout that he wants to become a clown when he grows up and work for the circus:

“Yes sir, a clown,” he said. “There ain’t one thing in this world I can do about folks except laugh, so I’m gonna join the circus and laugh my head off.”

“You got it backwards, Dill,” said Jem.  “Clowns are sad, it’s folks that laugh at them”

“Well, I’m gonna be a new kind of clown.  I’m gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks.”

I know that I’m reading things into the text that the author never intended, but both of these passages strike me as summing up the later years of Mr. Capote’s life so well that I can’t help but think of them as prescient.

But I said that I had some problems with To Kill a Mockingbird. I have no problems with the book as literature, nor with its place in the cannon.  It’s a terrific book, one that deserves the high opinion most readers have of it.  But, I do have a few issues…

I’m willing to overlook the saintly portrayal of all the black characters in the novel, the nanny who loves the white children she cares for like they were her own and seems to have not much of a life outside the white home where she works; and the Christ figure of Tom Robinson, the innocent many falsely accuesed of raping a white girl.  False accusations like this one are firmly rooted in American history, there are too many real life cases to take issue with this portrayal.  That the black characters serve the plot more than they do their own interests fits well enough within the confinces of the book’s child narrator, though it would have improved the book if the black characters had been given enough depth to have faults like the white characters did.

But it always bugged me that the accuser is a lower class person.  Does Mayella Ewell have to be on the bottom rung of the social ladder in order for the novel to work?  Why, in a town full of men and women willing to hang an accused black man without trial, does the accuser come from the group everyone looks down on more than everyone, the group even Tom Robinson pities?  The trial suggests that Mayella made overtures towards Tom Robinson because no other man ever showed romantic interest in her since she is so poor;  it’s even suggested that her father may have sexually abused her as though this is not an unexpected thing among the poor people in town.  I kept thinking of Dorothy Allison’s wonderful novel about poor white southerners Bastard Out of Carolina and how it opened the eyes of so many readers about what it’s like to grow up poor the rural parts of the American South.  To make the black characters sympathetic, do the poor characters have to become monstrous?

My second problem with To Kill a Mockingbird comes late in the book when Scout talks to Atticus about why blacks cannot serve on juries.  Afterwards they joke about why women can’t be on juries, how their gossipy natures would lead them to behave inappropriately.  This is just laughed off, accepted as true without discussion.  Even by Scout, who ought to have put up a fight about that issue.  I expected better of Atticus.

To Kill A Mockingbird makes a good point about racism in America, but it does so in a way designed not to make too many people uncomfortable.  The really bad racists are people like the Ewell’s, not people like us, not like people who would read To Kill a Mockingbird.

None of these issues make To Kill a Mockigbird a bad piece of literature. It’s still a wonderful book. It very likely went as far as a novel could have gone in 1960 which was still a president away from passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, still facing a country that regularly lynched its black citizens.  The last officially recorded lyching in American happened in 1968.  Congress failed to pass any anti-lynching legistlation until 2005.  So, I’m probaby being harder on To Kill a Mockingbird than I should be, but these things bothered me this time around.

That said, I really did enjoy it.

 Tomorrow, I’ll post my full review of Other Voices, Other Rooms. 

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, Fiction, LGBT, Novel, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

American Born Chinese, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang, tells three stories. The first is a condensed version of the classic Journey to the West, the story of how Monkey brought the sacred texts of Buddhism to China. The second is the story of young Jin Wang who must leave the safety of San Francisco’s Chinatown for life in the suburbs where he is the only Chinese American student in his class and where he falls in love with a white girl. The third story is that of Chin-Kee the personification of all negative Chinese stereotypes who comes to visit his American cousin and to ruin his life once a year.

American Born Chinese is a story about identity and about trying to fit in. An old shop keeper in Chinatown tells Jin Wang “It is easy to become anything you wish so long as you’re willing to forfeit your own soul.” The price for fitting in can be very high. Jin Wang wants to fit in with the white students at his new school so he turns on the only other Chinese student there, one whose accent and appearance is much more Chinese than his. Monkey is rejected by the heavenly dinner party because he has no shoes, so he forces all of the other monkeys in his kingdom to start wearing them. Chin-Kee is unashamed by who he is, but who he is brings shame on his cousin who rejects his Chinese identity so much that he has actually become white.

All three stories tie up together in a satisfying conclusion that makes its point without preaching. It may be too subtle for some younger readers, and I am always hesitant about presenting negative stereotypes as a means of critiquing them, but I think American Born Chinese would make an interesting addition to a high school or undergraduate class. If you’ve not yet explored the world of graphic novels, it’s a good place to start. They have, of late, begun to come of age. I suspect to find them on a growing number of syllabi in the coming decades. I expect to find American Born Chinese on a growing number of reading lists.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2008.  Since then, I have intended to read more graphic novels, but have not read many.  If their prices ever come down….

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Unwind by Neal Shusterman

Unwind by Neal Shusterman asks the reader to suspend disbelief, a lot of disbelief. If you can play along, you’re in for a thrilling ride of a story.

Unwind is set in a dystopian future, after the second American Civil War fought between the pro-choice and the pro-life factions. A strange peace accord was reached wherein abortion was outlawed but every parent has the right to have their children “unwound” between the ages of 13 and 18. Unwinding consists of taking the child apart and using their organs, limbs, tissues, etc. for transplants into other people. Since the entire body is used, the person is still considered alive just in a different form. Unruly children beware. Reader, begin suspension of disbelief now. It will be worth it.

The story concerns three children who are to be unwound. Conner is a difficult child. He gets into fights at school and does not have very good grades. His younger brother is the family golden child, and Conner just can’t really compare or compete. So his parents sign the papers to have him unwound. The day before the van is due to arrive and take him to a Harvest Camp, Conner decides to run away. He hitches a ride with a sympathetic truck driver but is soon caught by the police who track him down via his cell phone. He makes a desperate break for freedom and runs across a busy freeway. Almost run over by a passing car, he grabs 13-year-old Levi from the backseat and, using him as a hostage, continues his escape. A bus is forced off the road to avoid the two boys, and passenger Risa, an orphan who is also on her way to the Harvest Camp where she’ll be unwound, joins Connor in order to make her own escape. Connor and Risa soon find out that Levi is a ‘tithe’, a tenth child pledged to be unwound as part of his parents extreme from of fundamentalist Christianity. They give one tenth of everything to charity, including their children; Levi is their tenth child. The three children form an unlikely alliance and enter an underground railroad of sorts that takes run-away Unwinds through a series of safe houses to an airfield in Arizona where they are kept until they turn 18.

The story is a gripping thriller. The journey to the Arizona camp and what happens there is full of near captures, narrow escapes, unusual twists and turns. I soon forgot how unbelievable the story was and found myself immersed in the tale. The book is very hard
to put down, and the characterization is very impressive. The three lead characters are well drawn individuals. I could easily see a second novel featuring any of them. The supporting cast is actually memorable which I found to be a pleasing surprise. In so many thrillers like this the supporting players are simple stock figures, but here again I could easily see many of them filling their own volume.

While the situation is too far-fetched to be believable enough for the book to become a meaningful commentary on contemporary society the way many dystopian novels do, the writing in Unwind certainly drew me in enough to make me care about the characters and the plot kept me glued to the page.  It’s an excellent summer read.

 

This review first ran on my old blog Ready When You Are, C.B. back in the early summer of 2008.  I have been slowly migrating all of my old reviews over to this new blog.  

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fiction, Novel, Science Fiction, Thriller, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker

The Ghost Road by Pat Barker is the final volume in her Regeneration trilogy. (For reviews of the first two see Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.) In this the story’s conclusion we follow Billy Prior as he prepares to go back to the final days of the fighting in World War I and Dr. William Rivers as he continues to treat soldier’s suffering from various forms of mental breakdown and dreams of the days he spent as an anthropologist studying a tribe of head hunters on Eddystone Island in the South Seas.

In The Ghost Road Ms. Barker continues to mix historical fact with fiction to tell her story. Billy Prior is a fictional character, but Dr. Rivers is a historical figure who really did spend time living with a tribe of headhunters. During his flashbacks we learn quite a lot about the lives and customs of the South Seas natives. They have been forced to abandon their headhunting customs by the British who now control the area, but they have done so reluctantly. After the death of their chief it is clear that they want to go on the traditional hunt and bring back skulls in tribute to their lost leader, but they cannot. They have been forced into “civilized” life.

We can’t help but contrast them with the soldiers in Billy Prior’s part of the novel. After serving in France, Billy Prior finds it difficult to function in civilian England. He believes the war is futile, that it’s final days are being stretched out so the diplomats can get better terms in the peace treaty, but he wants to go back to the fight, back to the life he led on the battlefield, more than anything. He cannot stand to be around civilians for long at all. Ms. Barker brings this home when she describes Billy’s reaction to hearing the phrase “go over the top” used by party goers to describe a drinking binge or an argument. The phrase comes from the soldiers who used it in reference to climbing out of the safety of their trenches and charging the enemy. A phrase that fills Billy Prior with dread on the battlefield is the newest slang and a source of laughter back home.

There must be hundreds of little things like this that infuriate soldiers returning home from battle. One of the best aspects of Ms. Barker’s books is how well she understands the effect words can have and how clear she makes it for the reader. In the final section of the book we follow the story of Billy Prior through a journal he keeps during breaks in the final days of the fight. He writes how certain words no longer mean anything. Words like patriotism, honor, courage. While other smaller words have taken on great weight:

But now I look round this cellar with the candles burning on the tables and our linked shadows leaping on the walls, and I realize there’s another group of words that still mean something. Little words that trip through sentences unregarded: us, them, we, they, here, there. These are the words of power, and long after we’re gone, they’ll lie about in the language, like the unexploded grenades in these fields, and any one of them’ll take your hand off.

Posted in Book Review, Classic, English Literature, Fiction, History, Novel | 2 Comments

Perfume by Patrick Suskind

Perfume by Patrick Suskind is one of the books I found through the BBC’s radio program A Good Read. Everyone on that week’s panel enjoyed the book and it sounded very interesting so I bought it. The novel follows a child born into abject poverty in 18th century France who rises to become the best perfumer in the country. The fly in the ointment, a considerable fly to be certain, is that he also becomes a sociopathic serial killer.

Scent pervades the book, as one may expect in a story called Perfume. The anti-hero of the novel, Jean-Baptist Grenouille, is blessed with an unusually excellent sense of
smell. He can recognize the smell of anything, break down a general odor into its component parts and identify the types and quantity of each element present. He is also cursed–he has no personal smell himself; he gives off no odor what-so-ever. The effects of this blessing and this curse, along with an extremely deprived childhood that Grenouille barely survived work over time to separate Grenouille from the rest of humanity and create a serial killer.

The writing in Perfume is excellent. (That this comes across so well is a tribute to the translator, John E. Woods.) At times the book reads like a long prose poem. However, I found that the book contained too many lists for my taste. The first few, detailing all of the things Grenouille can smell on a Paris street for example, were fascinating, but they just kept coming and coming until, towards the end, I found myself skimming them over.

As a character study, Perfume, does an excellent job, but one has to ask to what end. Understanding what makes a character a serial killer is somewhat useful, I guess, but if that condition is caused in part by two supernatural gifts is there anything true to the human condition that can be learned? I don’t put much stock in serial killers except as foils for fictional detectives. (I suspect that for every real serial killer there are by now 2000 fictional ones.) A killer blessed with a superior sense of smell and cursed with no body odor what-so-ever moves Perfume into the realm of fable, but what then is the moral? I do not know.

A fable without a moral, an attempt to understand a killer without teaching us anything about a killer’s nature, no matter how well written leaves me unsatisfied.

 

I’m surprised to find I was so negative in my critique of this book.  I recall liking it, but I’d forgotten the issues I had with it.  I’ve not read anything else by Patrick Suskind since I first published this review in 2008 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., but I’m interested in doing so, after reading this review.

Posted in Book Review, Fiction, German Literature, Noir, Novel, Thriller | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment