Tuesday, September 16, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

"You want to be a lawyer, don't you?" Our father's mouth was suspiciously firm, as if he were trying to hold it in line.

Jem decided there was no point in quibbling, and was silent.  When Atticus went inside the house to retrieve a file he had forgotten to take to work that morning, Jem finally realized that he had been done in by the oldest lawyer's trick on record.  He waited a respectful distance from the front steps, watched Atticus leave the house and walk toward town.  When Atticus was out of earshot Jem yelled after him: "I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I ain't so sure now!"

I haven't read To Kill a Mockinbird since high school; then, I thought it was a good book.  When Brittany was reading the book, she told me I needed to re-read it because I would fall in love.  I expected her to be right--what I didn't expect, though, was how right she would be.  Reading this book, now, was a religious experience and nearly brought me to tears multiple times.  On some occasions I would have to stop reading because the writing was so beautiful that I needed to let the feeling linger before I moved on.  So, yes, I loved this book.

Despite having a plethora of reactions to this book, I want to focus on a question that readers of this blog will (surely) have an opinion about: What is the difference between a great book and a good book.  Here's what I've come up with:

First, To Kill a Mockingbird is universal in a way that even good books are not.  Lee accomplishes this using Scout's innocence.  By filtering the narration through Scout's ostensible innocence, the novel's narrator is relatable.  It's easy for any reader to envision viewing the world the way Scout does.  However, I write "ostensible innocence" because there's an illusion here: the narrator is writing through the eyes of an innocent young girl, but often uses diction or conclusory, reflective statements to remind the reader that this is a narrator remembering back.  For example, when Atticus tells Scout to go to bed after she'd been listening to a long conversation between him and Uncle Jack: "I scurried to my room went to bed . . . . But I never figured out how Atticus knew I was listening, and it was not until many years later that I realized he wanted me to hear every word he said."  So, at the same time that Scout is relatable, the reader benefits from Scout's hindsight ruminations.

Second: Lee's writing is remarkably beautiful. I use the adverb because the writing here is beautiful in way that surpasses other writers..  Consider this line, describing the childrens' performances of plays during the summer, "But by the end of August our repertoire was vapid from countless reproductions, and it was then that Dill gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out."  I have never seen "vapid" used in this context and I love it.

Or, this:
We know all men are not created equal in the sense some people would have us believe--some people are smarter than others, some people have more opportunity than others, some ladies make better cakes than others--some people are born gifted beyond the normal scope of most men.
But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal--there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president.  That institution, gentlemen, is a court . . . Our courts have faults, as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.
This passage, beautiful in its own right, also reflects a motif spread throughout the novel: the inequality of the world contrasted by the idealism of equality.  We see it again when Miss Maudie describes Atticus's talent with guns:  "If your father's anything, he's civilized in his heart.  Marksmanship's a gift of God, a talent--oh, you have to practice to make it perfect, but shootin's different from playing the piano or the like.  I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized God had given him an unfair advantage over most living things."

Finally, Atticus is himself a character that makes the book remarkably good.  Atticus is presented as heroic, and it's easy to accept it whole-heartedly.  I love this image, captured by the movie:

I also love this introduction of Atticus in the beginning: "His first two clients were the last two persons hanged in Maycomb County jail.  Atticus had urged them to accept the state's generosity in allowing them to plead Guilty to second-degree murder and escape with their lives, but they were Haverfords, in Maycomb County a name synonymous with jackass."  Notably, even in this early description of Atticus, he's the voice of reason.

Anyway, this review's too long and reeks of someone trying to say too much without focus.  So, my question, friends: what makes a great novel?  And, is To Kill a Mockingbird a great novel?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

The school where I teach sent me a copy of American Born Chinese over the summer.  In October, I have to lead a conversation about the graphic novel with a group of kids as part of a schoolwide conversation about respect.   I'm an English teacher, that doesn't faze me, but I can see why others might be anxious over talking about the book with young kids; one of the three narratives contained within the book traffics in some pretty horrific stereotypes: Danny, an All-American kind of high school kid, is mortified when his cousin Chin-Kee, a cartoonish Chinese figure, comes for an extended visit:

Chin-Kee swaps his L's for R's and vice versa, eats dog, shows off in class, and generally makes Danny's life miserable.  There's a method in this, of course; Chin-Kee represents the kind of self-image that young Asian-American students fear carrying around with them, but I expect younger kids might not have the foresight to anticipate the way Yang expresses this idea late in the book.  The fact that Danny is white makes it even more difficult to figure out exactly what Yang is aiming for, at first.

Its significance is tied to the two other narratives in the book: The story of the Monkey King, who wants to be anything but a monkey, and the story of Jin, who is fearful of associating with a more recent Taiwanese immigrant to his class.  Jin's story especially shows clear parallels with the story of Danny and Chin-Kee, and together they become a larger narrative about the need to fit in and the pressure to abandon one's cultural heritage.  In the end, Yang ties these three stories in a way that is clever and tidy; in this way the book rewards patient readers who are willing to wait for the relevance of Chin-Kee to become clear.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

I pretty much never read straight-up mystery novels, but when I was contacted about Blade of the Samurai, I was intrigued by the setup: an undercover samurai, Hiro Hattori, solves mysteries with Father Mateo , the Catholic priest he's been commissioned to protect. Sounded like an interesting spin on the detective story, and I figured I'd at least enjoy the setting, so I picked it up.

The mystery this time is as follows: Saburo, a cousin of the shogun, has been stabbed to death in his quarters, and the apparent perpetrator is Kazu, a longtime friend of Hiro's. Because of their connection, he's called to investigate the case, which must--will--be closed before an important diplomatic attache arrives, even if it means executing a man who may not be guilty.

I'm happy to say that, on the samurai detective front, it delivered. Blade of the Samurai tells a pleasantly diverting little yarn with bursts of good humor and some fairly sharp characterization. I enjoyed the interactions between Hiro and Father Mateo, but moreso, I enjoyed the reactions of the Japanese with whom Father Mateo came into contact with. While many authors might have played the cultural differences for fish-out-of-water japery, Spann takes them seriously for the most part, culminating in a scene where Father Mateo is scolded and subsequently repentant for treating peasants the same way he treats the hoi-poi.

This scene encapsulates the other thing I wanted from the book and didn't quite get: a more thorough examination of the relationship between Father Mateo's faith and Hiro's ancestral religion. I'm a sucker for Catholic novels, but besides the fact that Father Mateo spends about 25% of the novel offscreen, Spann mostly doesn't focus too much on his inner life--and, to be fair, that's my own baggage coming into the book. Still, I would have liked a little more.

Overall, however, the mystery moved quickly, especially when supporting characters start biting it in the back half, and the killer wasn't obvious to me--I can't speak for more experienced mystery fans. It was fun, and if you like mysteries or find the setting of feudal Japan interesting, check it out.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Cinder by Marissa Meyer

"She wouldn't fit in at a formal ball anyway. Even if she did find dress gloves and slippers that could hide her metal monstrosities, her mousy hair would never hold a curl, and she didn't know the first thing about makeup. She would just end up sitting off the dance floor and making fun of the girls who swooned to get Prince Kai's attention, pretending she wasn't jealous. Pretending it didn't bother her."

This novel is exactly what the cover image and the quote suggests: Cinder is a cyborg teenager who experiences all the typical teenage drama (what teenage girl hasn't pretended to make fun of other girls when they were really just jealous? I am finally old enough to admit that my cattiness is really my jealousy) on top of cyborg sci-fi problems on top of Cinderella problems.

The book features Cinder, an adopted cyborg, who lives in New Beijing as a part of the Eastern Commonwealth that was established after WWIV in the far future. Although Cinder is still a second class citizen in her home (evil stepmother/dead father are still a thing), she's also a second class citizen in her government: cyborgs aren't given full human rights. Although Cinder is still doing the work that her pampered step family is too lazy/bougie to do, she is a talented mechanic rather than a maid. There is no fairy godmother for Cinder; she creates her own Pumpkin and magic with her mechanical know-how. The future world of Cinder has hovercrafts, cyborg body parts, the equivalent of the iPhone27, a Lunar colony on the moon, and a Plague that is spreading.
"You see," said Dr. Erland, "Lunars are the original carrier hosts for letumosis. Their migration to the rural areas of Earth, mostly during the rein of Queen Channary, brough thte disease into contact wtih humans for the first time. Historically, it's a common situation. The rats that brought the bubonic plague to Europe, the conquistadors who brought smallpox to the Native Americans."
The Eastern Commonwealth of course has a Prince, and I found his banter with Cinder to be charming and swoon-worthy rather than the typical overwrought and eye-rolly conversations that most YA romances are filled with
"Now, I don't want to tell you how to run your business or anything," he said, "but have you considered actually charging people for your services?" 
"I don't want to tell you how to be a prince, but shouldn't you have bodyguards or something?"
It is remarkable how Meyer has taken a story that everyone knows and given it fresh twists.

  • We know that Cinder has to meet the Prince. We expect it will happen at the ball, but Meyer moves it to very early in the plot a week before the ball which leave us wondering: what is the conflict if not meeting the Prince? (this also gives them a chance to develop an actual relationship so there's not of that love-at-first-sight nonsense)
  • We know that Cinder is going to end up at the ball, but Meyer puts in place enough roadblocks that make it apparent that going to the ball would threaten Cinder's life, so we have to wonder: what is going to happen that is more important than our protagonist's life?
  • We know that Cinder is going to lose a shoe/foot, but the opening page has Cinder ditching her old cyborg foot for a new one, so we have to wonder: when and where is she going to lose her foot?
Cinder invokes the moral quandaries of what legal status cyborgs should have, whether it's worth it to sacrifice some for the betterment of many, how political alliances are built on shifting power structures, and whether people should marry for love or for practicality. 

It ends on a bit of a cliffhanger which is no surprise since the back cover clearly advertises the sequels (Scarlet and Cress which are already out and the forthcoming Fairest and Winter). I hope that Meyer is able to keep up the stamina of the first books and tell a complete story. More disappointing than a bad book is a bad sequel.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

And in the end, I know little, some small facts: I love Joshua. He was here.  He lived.  Something vast and large took him, took all of my friends: Roger, Demond, C.J., and Ronald.  Once, they lived. We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: You are nothing.  We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing.  We drank too much, smoked too much, were abusive to ourselves, to each other.  We were bewildered.  There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.

As you can tell from the above excerpt, Men We Reaped is not a light or happy book.  However, it's an incredibly written and haunting book that I recommend to everyone.

Jesmyn Ward's memoir tells the story of her childhood in DeLisle, Mississippi, and the lives and deaths of five men close to her: three friends, a cousin, and most excruciatingly, her younger brother.  All died before they turned 30, and together Ward knits their deaths together as a shroud of what it's like to be a black man in the South.

There are books about poverty and its causes, racism and its manifestations, drugs and violence, but I can't imagine any paint as vivid a picture of how it feels to experience all of these not only individually, but systemically, knowing that you and the people you love are almost fated to experience them.  I knew this book would give me a perspective that I hadn't had before and I expected it to be heartbreaking, but I was also impressed at how beautifully written it is.  Ward's prose flows effortlessly and makes the reader feel what it's like to both desperately love and desperately hate a place, as she does about her home.

I also recommend this book because it is so relevant in America today.  Much has been written about the morality of our criminal justice system, the causes of poverty, the efficacy of police tactics, and the seemingly unceasing effects of racism, but I think it's important, especially for white people like me, to set aside the theoretical and statistical and to just listen to what it feels like to be black in America, what experiences come along with that.  I know I've been deficient in my posting this year, but I felt like I had to get back at it with this one.