Saturday, 28 July 2018

HOW TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee

From the very first lines this book is like: BOOM.  
Really, great books are a miracle.  They have such a sense of inevitability about them - as if they had to exist, and exist in exactly this way - that its hard to imagine that someone actually had to sit down and right them.  Particularly interesting is the fact that this was Harper Lee's first book.  She was at work on a second one, and when this was accepted by an agent she apparently somehow froze on the second; and then when this turned into a major success (and success is putting it mildly - it's possibly the best selling book of the 20th century) then it was really all over for her.  She didn't publish anything else for fifty years.  The dreaded second album problem on steroids.  
Anyway, this first album is more than most people manage in a lifetime.  It tells the story of the children of a small town lawyer in Alabama who runs into trouble with his neighbours when he defends a black man against the charge of raping a white woman.  The man is clearly innocent, but he is found guilty in any case.  This sounds like it must be a serious story of discrimination, which it is, but at the same time it is a comic story of growing up, and a portrait of a small town that is both loving and damning.
What I most enjoyed was the subtly comic tone.  When I really like a book, I tend to overquote on my blog.  Here we go: 
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flied in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by night fall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum
Teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum!  I will never look at perspiring women the same way again.  And here's the family doctor who "had brought Jem and me into the world, had led us through every childhood disease known to man including the time Jem fell out of the tree house, and he had never lost our friendship. Dr. Reynolds said that if we were boil-prone things would have been different"
The children are a girl, Scout, and a boy, Jem.  Here is Jem telling Scout to not get so angry at her aunt, as it bothers their father (who they call by his first name, Atticus):
"You know she's not used to girls," said Jem, "leastways, not girls like you. She's trying to make you a lady. Can't you take up sewin' or somethin'?" "Hell no. She doesn't like me, that's all there is to it, and I don't care. It was her callin' Walter Cunningham trash that got me goin', Jem, not what she said about being a problem to Atticus. We got that all straight one time, I asked him if I was a problem and he said not much of one, at most one that he could always figure out, and not to worry my head a second about botherin' him.
Enjoyable piece of literary trivia: the character Dill in the book, who is Scout's best friend, was based on Truman Capote, who in real life was Harper Lee's next door neighbour in childhood.  Monroeville Alabama great novelist per capita numbers are way high




Saturday, 14 July 2018

NEWLYWEDS by Nell Freudenberger

It's really important to have a plan on what you are going to read on vacation.  I had no plan and ran out of books.  Thus this, found in one of these free book exchanges in hotels.  It is about a mail order bride from Bangaldesh and her early days in the US.  It was reasonably okay, though I wasn't too sure what point it was trying to make.  Broadly, she realizes she is in love with her old Bangladeshi boyfriend, but sticks it out with the (in my mind suspiciously) okayish American so her parents can move to the First World.  I guess its a story of filial rather than marital love.  It's a good thing I have a blog because I left it in Oregon and have already almost forgotten all about it

THE AWAKENING by Kate Chopin

This book tells the story of a woman who is tired of her marriage and the life it has given her.  Written in 1899, it's reads remarkably fresh and modern.  It is apparently - though I had never heard of it - widely regarded as an American classic.  While really an excellent book, that caused a furore when first published (apparently female self-discovery is "trite and sordid"), it was then forgotten for the next sixty years until feminist circles picked it up.  Patriarchy doesn't play when it comes to pushing things out of print.

The main character is on holiday at the beach in Louisiana with her husband and children when she meets a man and finds herself growing interested in him.  She doesn't actually cheat, but this interest slowly has her re-examining what she is doing, moving out of her husband's house, and separating herself from her children whom, enjoyably shockingly, she feels pretty average about.  Kate Chopin knew something about having children, having had six herself in just eight years.  At some point you have to wonder at what point pregnancy tips into spousal abuse.  (As a side point, it's interesting to note that in all countries without exception, birth rates decline as female empowerment goes up.  Makes you wonder how women in the past really felt about their children, especially after the third or fourth.)

It's a book I strongly recommend, reaching out across over a hundred years to speak truths we still recognize about love and boredom.  Chopin is a remarkable writer, and shockingly contemporary.  Enjoy this, not from the book itself, but from her diary, which gives you a sense of her style:
I must tell you [her diary] a discovery I have made – the art of making oneself agreeable in conversation. Strange as it may appear it is not necessary to possess the faculty of speech; dumb persons, provided they be not deaf, can practice it as well as the most voluble. All required of you is to have control over the muscles of your face – to look pleased and chagrined…interested and entertained. Lead your antagonist to talk about himself – he will not enter reluctantly upon the subject I assure you – and twenty to one – he will report you as one of the most entertaining and intelligent persons

Sunday, 1 July 2018

ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain


I can’t think how I have never got round to reading this before.  I was inspired by reading in the Introduction to something else (tip: Introductions are a great source for reading recommendations) that Huckleberry Finn is widely regarded as the true beginning of American literature.  Indeed, it is a triumph of narrative voice.  Huckleberry, the narrator, just leaps off the page.  It’s strange really, as this was for Twain a sequel, and Huckleberry a secondary character to Tom Sawyer, so it’s odd that it is this book, and not the other, that is his masterpiece.

The book is about a young boy who runs away from his abusive father along with an escaping slave by floating down the Missisippi on a raft.  Written that way, it sounds rather bleak, but somehow it is comic.  After all, as Huck says:  
Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t.  You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft.  
The story is full of boys-own still hijinks, that do get a little wearing, but it is redeemed by lovely little passages like this:
When I got there it was all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny; the hands was gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody's dead and gone; and if a breeze fans along and quivers the leaves it makes you feel mournful, because you feel like it's spirits whispering—spirits that's been dead ever so many years—and you always think they're talking about YOU. As a general thing it makes a body wish HE was dead, too, and done with it all.
It’s also always fun. Take this description of an undertaker:
When the place was packed full the undertaker he slid around in his black gloves with his softy soothering ways, putting on the last touches, and getting people and things all ship-shape and comfortable, and making no more sound than a cat. He never spoke; he moved people around, he squeezed in late ones, he opened up passageways, and done it with nods, and signs with his hands. Then he took his place over against the wall. He was the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see; and there warn’t no more smile to him than there is to a ham.
Huck’s friendship with the slave, Jim, is the warm heart of this novel.  What is very difficult for a modern reader is how Huck struggles with this friendship:
He was saying how the first thing he would do when he got to a free State he would go to saving up money and never spend a single cent, and when he got enough he would buy his wife, which was owned on a farm close to where Miss Watson lived; and then they would both work to buy the two children, and if their master wouldn’t sell them, they’d get an Ab’litionist to go and steal them. It most froze me to hear such talk. He wouldn’t ever dared to talk such talk in his life before. Just see what a difference it made in him the minute he judged he was about free. It was according to the old saying, “Give a nigger an inch and he’ll take an ell.” Thinks I, this is what comes of my not thinking. Here was this nigger, which I had as good as helped to run away, coming right out flat-footed and saying he would steal his children—children that belonged to a man I didn’t even know; a man that hadn’t ever done me no harm.

Huck never turns Jim in, and it is strange and sobering to see how often he considers doing so.  Twain grew up in the geography and time period of this novel – this book joins many others in being a masterpiece made out a childhood – so perhaps this just shows how white people really did think about this topic then, and it is a good challenge to us to hear about it. 



SOMETHING IN THE WATER by Catherine Steadman


I rarely read thrillers, but I was on  holiday and desperate.  Also I’m getting old and my standards are lowering.  I recall I noted on this blog the first book I ever read on an e-reader, and I should note that this is the first book I ever read entirely on a phone.  It was a surprisingly comfortable experience.  I read most of it while sick with a cold in a hotel room in Napa.  Then I snatched victory from defeat by going out to drink Californian wine on top of my medication.

It was easy to get through most of it in a marathon session, as it is a quick and compelling page turner.  It’s written by an actress (from Downton Abbey) and I take my hat off to her, because I thinking writing more-ish commercial fiction must be much harder than it looks. Take this fabulous opening, of the first chapter (titled, amazingly, ‘The Grave’): 
Have you ever wondered how long it takes to dig a grave?  Wonder no longer.  It takes an age.  However long you think it takes, double that.
The story begins with a  couple on honeymoon finding some papers in the sea outside their hotel, and quickly descends to theft and murder.  I won’t tell you anymore, as it’s hard not to immediately start spoilers, but let’s just say GONE GIRL is an influence, though not in the way you think.

I’ll close with the book’s opening quotation, which is surprisingly high brow, and very excellent. 
If a victory is told in detail, one can no longer distinguish it from a defeat. 
I love that. It speaks to how hard it is to get anything done, not least, I suspect, writing a book that made it into Reese Witherspoon’s book club.  It’s not Oprah, but I’d still call it victory.