To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Thanks to Dave, I have a great lead off for this blog post. 

Homer Simpson often says the wisest things.  For example: “What’s the point of going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”  Or.  “Facts are meaningless. You could use facts to prove anything that’s even remotely true!”

For my book this week, To Kill a Mockingbird, Mr. Simpson provided us with this:  “Books are useless! I only ever read one book, “To Kill A Mockingbird,” and it gave me absolutely no insight on how to kill mockingbirds! Sure it taught me not to judge a man by the color of his skin… but what good does that do me?”  Ponder that for a minute before continuing to my obligatory paragraph telling you which authors listed To Kill A Mockingbird in their top ten.  Also, be aware that if for some insane reason the book hadn’t been in The Top Ten, I would have forced it into a blog entry anyway.

Chris Bohjalian, Judy Budnitz, Pearl Cleage, Michael Connelly, Sue Monk Kidd, Alexander McCall Smith and Susan Vreeland all listed To Kill a Mockingbird.

In addition the book has received numerous other awards, including the Pulitzer Prize.

I last read this book at least 20 years ago.  So, I remembered bits and pieces of it, intermingled with bits and pieces of the movie, last seen around the same time frame.  Now, I will state that the fact that I remembered bits and pieces of it speak as to the strength of the novel and its quality as I often don’t remember anything about a book a month after reading it, much less 2 decades or more later. 

I think most of you reading this blog will already have heard or discussed yourself the racial implications, as also even noted by the esteemed Mr. Simpson above, of To Kill a Mockingbird.  I wanted to focus today on, to me, what makes this book so amazing other than that theme (since there are other works of fiction revolving around racial injustice that haven’t endured quite as well). 

First, one of the things that I had forgotten was exactly how the book got its title.  Scout, the main character/first person narrator of the story and her brother Jem, get guns for Christmas one year.  Their dad, Atticus Finch, tells them the following:

“”I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the back yard, but I know you’ll go after birds.  Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit ’em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”  That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it.  “Your father’s right,” she said.  “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.  They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.  That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

The whole of the story is a coming of age story.  Which I hate sounding, because it sounds so trite, and is always what people say about books with children narrators, but it’s true.  Through the three years approximately that this book covers, you see Jem and Scout go from being scared of an unknown thing (Boo Radley, their recluse neighbor) to not being scared of him due to the events of the book (their father’s defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman, who obviously did not do it) showing them the real evils of the world.  The trial is only about 2/3rds of the novel, the other third deals with Boo Radley and also just the day to day life of Scout, Jem, their father, their black servant who Atticus refers to as family, Calpurnia and Scout and Jem’s aunt, Alexandra.  Their friend, Dill, who comes in the summer also plays a major role.

Going back to the title and the quote I put above, Lee shows both subtly in some cases and not so subtly in others the mockingbirds being “killed”.

1.  Jem and Scout.  As children, they could fit into the whole mockingbird innocence theme.  They haven’t had the chance to do anything that makes them more of a bad thing.  However, the whole of the events of the trial slowly wears that innocence down.  Jem loses faith in his home.  This is the more subtle one, as Lee doesn’t seem to make a big deal about trying to get the reader to see this.

2.  Boo Radley.  Towards the end of the book, Scout likens exposing Boo to the world to shooting a mockingbird.  Boo is a recluse for a reason, and for him to be exposed to the town’s scrutiny would be killing that, killing Boo.

3.  Tom Robinson, the black defendant accused of raping the white woman.  For anyone that has read the book, this is a clear cut example of the title. 

The tight fitting of her theme and how it relates to the characters is one of the ways that Lee has set this book apart from others.

Another is her sense of…timing? I’m not sure entirely what word I’m looking for here, but you keep turning pages.  And for me, I turned those pages in an almost breathless state.  The pace! that’s the word, the pace.  Lee keeps you going, never dragging a bit of narrative or dialogue or description.  It all fits together in a whole, which very few works of literature or even cinema achieve. 

Harper Lee also details characters amazingly.  You know, without a doubt, as if you were a resident of the town who characters are, based upon everything from two lines of description, to the assumption made about them compared to the reality of them exposed in just a couple of lines, to pages upon pages of character observations. 

These are all reasons I would have included To Kill a Mockingbird in this blog, even if no author had listed it as a favorite.

Random interesting trivia about it all.  Truman Capote, of In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s fame, and Harper Lee were friends from childhood.  Capote would stay with his cousins next door to Harper’s house.  Harper Lee helped Capote research In Cold Blood.  In 1960, Truman Capote, in a letter to friends, wrote:

Nelle’s book is high on the best-seller list; she has gone home to Monroeville for a month. And yes, my dear, I am Dill.”

Sadly, though, Homer Simpson is right.  There’s no advice on how to kill mockingbirds.  Or any other type of birds.  Though there is a demonstration on how to shoot a rabid dog from down the street, in a very non Old Yeller way.

The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler

I’m not a big one for nonfiction. I spend too much of my working day with nonfiction, so I don’t tend to want to see much of it when I get home. I’m also not a big proponent of Victorian ideals. A criticism of such isn’t likely to convince me of the flaws of the Victorian era much more than I already am. Still, I wanted to give The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler a look.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Percival Everett.)

I’ve seen this book described as autobiographical, but though Butler describes in the context of his own experiences, the center of the book is Ernest Pontifex, the great grandson of one of Butler’s neighbors when growing up.

Ernest’s grandfather was a good man, but Ernest’s grandfather was kind of a nasty and avaricious man. He browbeat his son Theobald into becoming a clergyman, and Theobald in turn became a nasty, hypocritical man. Well meaning as he may have been, he was still nasty and hypocritical. The way he raises Ernest stays well within this hypocrisy and nastiness:

“Ernest,” said Theobald, from the arm-chair in front of the fire, where he was sitting with his hands folded before him, “don’t you think it would be very nice if you were to say ‘come’ like other people, instead of ‘tum’?”

“I do say tum,” replied Ernest, meaning that he had said “come.”

Theobald was always in a bad temper on Sunday evening. Whether it is that they are as much bored with the day as their neighbours, or whether they are tired, or whatever the cause may be, clergymen are seldom at their best on Sunday evening; I had already seen signs that evening that my host was cross, and was a little nervous at hearing Ernest say so promptly “I do say tum,” when his papa had said he did not say it as he should.

Theobald noticed the fact that he was being contradicted in a moment. He got up from his arm-chair and went to the piano.

“No, Ernest, you don’t,” he said, “you say nothing of the kind, you say ‘tum,’ not ‘come.’ Now say ‘come’ after me, as I do.”

“Tum,” said Ernest, at once; “is that better?” I have no doubt he thought it was, but it was not.

*****

I laughed, but Theobald turned to me impatiently and said, “Please do not laugh, Overton; it will make the boy think it does not matter, and it matters a great deal;” then turning to Ernest he said, “Now, Ernest, I will give you one more chance, and if you don’t say ‘come,’ I shall know that you are self-willed and naughty.”

He looked very angry, and a shade came over Ernest’s face, like that which comes upon the face of a puppy when it is being scolded without understanding why. The child saw well what was coming now, was frightened, and, of course, said “tum” once more.

“Very well, Ernest,” said his father, catching him angrily by the shoulder. “I have done my best to save you, but if you will have it so, you will,” and he lugged the little wretch, crying by anticipation, out of the room. A few minutes more and we could hear screams coming from the dining-room, across the hall which separated the drawing-room from the dining-room, and knew that poor Ernest was being beaten.

Ernest’s parents mislead and manipulate him his entire life, making him become a clergyman himself. He is so unable to think for himself and so incapable of interacting with the world, he ends up in prison due to a mistake. His parents are horrified, but ready to step in and manipulate him more later to guide him towards respectability again.

Luckily, there is also Butler and an aunt of Ernest’s who aren’t as caught up in the Victorian hypocrisy/nastiness. The aunt left Ernest a great deal of money, but Butler isn’t supposed to tell him about it until he’s 28. In prison and afterward, Ernest manages to separate himself from his parents and actually start developing as an independent human being. He still has missteps, but he eventually manages to live a fairly happy life.

Now, I can certainly see the criticism of Victorian society in The Way of All Flesh, but I’m not sure I entirely see the lesson it puts forth in opposition. The Victorian apparatus is definitely represented by some nasty and hypocritical people, but Ernest seems to end up coming right more by accident of fortune than anything else. If it weren’t for Butler and the Aunt, Ernest would still have been sunk.

Butler seems to present himself and the aunt as paragons of reasonableness and intelligence, and perhaps they are, but perhaps it’s easy to look at things that way since the money works out and Butler is the one presenting the story. It’s pretty easy to make oneself look good while pointing out the nastiness and hypocrisy of another. We just don’t know in this what Butler’s own problems might have been. Perhaps he didn’t have any, or perhaps he doesn’t tell us.

From The Way of All FleshI end up taking away that nasty people do harm and tend to raise other nasty people. I’m sure I should be getting more than that. I enjoyed the book, but I’m not as awed as I felt I should have been. I probably missed something.

I hate Rabbit. Rabbit is Rich by John Updike

See here for my first post on Rabbit, when I read Rabbit Run. See here for my post on Rabbit Redux.

I seriously considered my whole blog today to be one statement.

I HATE RABBIT ANGSTROM.

But then I figured I owed more to this space than just that.

From what I can see from different views online when I searched it, apparently Rabbit has changed, become more in step with his times, whereas the prior two books he was out of sync with the decade. And that might be true but all I can see is what an asshole he is.

First, he always, always has blamed others for the things he does, the way his life is. The following is him talking to Janice, his wife.

“We have a child, not children,” he says coldly, as the gin expands his inner space. They had children once, but the infant daughter, Becky had died. It was his wife’s fault. The entire squeezed and cut-down shape of his life is her fault; at every turn she has been a wall to his freedom. “Listen,” he says to her, “I’ve been trying to get out of this depressing house for years and I don’t want this shiftless arrogant goof-off we’ve raised, coming back and pinning me in.”

In Rabbit, Redux, Rabbit put his son Nelson through one of the worst things you could put a 12 year old boy through. And instead of having some empathy for how Nelson is as a 22 year old, partly as a result of that, and partly as a result of the fact that his dad is a selfish prick, he turns it all around and back to him. Like Nelson is responsible for it all.

Nelson has just gotten into a fender bender and Janice is telling Rabbit about it.
“…He’s really very embarrassed about it.”
“The fuck he is, he loves it. He has my head in a vise and he just keeps turning the screw. That he’d do it to your car after you’ve been knocking yourself out for him, that’s really gratitude”.

Nelson really wants to work at the car lot that Janice and her mother inherited from Janice’s dad when he died. Rabbit runs the car lot, even though they’re technically the owners. He doesn’t want Nelson selling cars on the floor, and from what is said and what is implied, you very much get the sense that Rabbit just doesn’t want Nelson to be around him. He offers him a job in the mechanic’s bay. And it’s only when the Springer women (Janice and her mom) lay the law down that he takes Nelson onto the sales floor. Nelson has some creative and innovative ideas, but because they’re from Nelson and also constitute a change that wasn’t Rabbit’s idea in the first place he continually shoots them down. The prior two books, the major events in each one has partly been caused by Rabbit. However, Janice has a part in both of them as well (in the first book, she was the primary doer of the event, in the second book she was the catalyst for the events that happened after), so he just sticks all the blame on Janice and goes about ruminating on women’s bodies and how he misses wanting to fuck all the time.

For me, I adored Nelson because he actually gave the summary of his dad that I could fully stand behind.

“Maybe what I mind around here is Dad.” At the thought of Dad, the abrasion intensifies. “I can’t stand him, the way he sits there in the living room hogging the Barcalounger. He”–he can hardly find words, the discomfort is so great–“just sits there in the middle of the whole fucking world. Talking and taking. He doesn’t know anything the way Charlie does. What did he ever do to build up the lot? My granddad was grubbing his way up while my father wasn’t doing anything but being a lousy husband to my mother. That’s all he’s done to deserve all this money: be too lazy and shiftless to leave my mother like he wanted to.”

I guess I also am angry that the laziness and shiftlessness keeps working out so well for Rabbit. He has horrific things happen in both the prior books due to his horrific choices and yet he keeps landing back in the cushy Janice pad where he stays until the next whim takes him.

I can’t believe I have one more book to go, one more book worth of Rabbit. From what I can see though, the book goes through to Rabbit’s death. That’s an ending I might be able to root for. Just kidding 🙂 I’m not that callous. And I’d rather see him have to suffer a bit more if I’m honest.

Light In August by William Faulkner

First, I have to admit that I have misplaced my Top Ten book, but I think this book is at least on Stephen King’s Top Ten (though don’t quote me). If you saw all the piles of books around my place between myself and Amelia’s library books and my “I own these” TBR pile, you’d understand the reason it’s misplaced.

Second, I will state that the quotations below from the book do not involve me forgetting apostrophes. Words like can’t, don’t and ain’t, are not used with apostrophes in the book. ” He never included apostrophes in the words “dont,” “wont,” “aint,” “cant,” or “oclock,” and very seldom used an apostrophe to indicate a dropped letter at the beginning or end of a spoken dialect word, such as “bout” or “runnin.” He never used a period after the titles “Mr,” “Mrs,” or “Dr”.”

Light in August by William Faulkner is a really excellent book. I enjoyed it. It’s basically (to me at least) a story about who people are. One of the main characters creates self fulfilling prophecies about himself, projecting what others think of him onto them, and does atrocious things because of this. But, compared to other characters, he is very self aware. Faulkner paints those that are not self-aware as almost being buffoons.

This book is copyrighted 1932, and it has a certain tone that I think of as coming from the 1920s through the 1940s. I just looked at the copyright date and even had I not known Faulkner was 20th century, earlier in it, I would have been able to guess either the thirties or the forties as the time frame the book was written in. Steinbeck’s works (even his written in the 1950s East of Eden) and Flannery O’Connor are two of the ones I think of while writing this. However, I really like how Faulkner uses this style and makes it his own.

Faulkner injects a certain wry humor into his subjects, at moments where you wouldn’t expect it. For instance, one of the main characters, who got pregnant out of wedlock is sneaking out of her house to go find her deserted lover.

“Two weeks later she climbed again through the window. It was a little difficult, this time. “If it had been this hard to do before, I reckon I would not be doing it now,’ she thought.”

The character I mentioned above with the self fulfilling prophecy issues, named Joe Christmas has the following moment, which I think describe him amazingly well.

“Looking down at the harsh, crude, clumsy shapelessness of them, he said “Hah” through his teeth. It seemed to him that he could see himself being hunted by white men at last into the black abyss which had been waiting, trying, for thirty years to drown him and into which now and at last he had actually entered, bearing now upon his ankles the definite and ineradicable gauge of its upward moving.”

I loved how rich Faulkner creates his characters. He will spend pages upon pages on backstory of a character, of events of their prior lives. Unlike Les Miserables, it’s actually very compelling backstory, there are no long descriptions of battles that have nothing to do with the story except to introduce a character in the last line of quite a tangle of pages. Sometimes you have no idea why Faulkner has shared a back story of a character in, but suddenly he ties it together. He also doesn’t waste characters. Even the characters that are there for a purpose, like the sheriff and deputy and aren’t deep characters he paints in rich, vivid detail in a few words and leaves them be. This scene comes between the sheriff and a black man he is interrogating (not Joe Christmas).

“The other two white men were behind him, where he could not see them. He did not look back at them, not so much as a glance. He was watching the sheriff’s face as a man watches a mirror. Perhaps he saw it, as in a mirror, before it came. Perhaps he did not, since if change, flicker, there was in the sheriff’s face it was no m ore than a flicker. But the negro did not look back; there came only into his face when the strap fell across his back a wince, sudden, sharp, fleet, jerking up the corners of his mouth and exposing his momentary teeth like smiling. Then his face smoothed again, inscrutable.
“I reckon you aint tried hard enough to remember,” the sheriff said.
“I cant remember because I cant know,” the negro said. “I dont even live nowhere near here. You ought to know where I stay at, white folks.”
“Mr Buford says you live right down the road yonder,” the sheriff said.
“Lots of folks live down that road. Mr Buford ought to know where I stay at.”
“He’s lying,” the deputy said. His name was Buford. He was the one who wielded the strap, buckle end outward. He held it poised. He was watching the sheriff’s face. He looked like a spaniel waiting to be told to spring into the water.
“Maybe so; maybe not,” the sheriff said. He mused upon the negro. He was still, huge, inert, sagging the cot springs. “I think he just dont realize yet that I aint playing. Let alone them folks out there that aint go no jail to put him into if anything he wouldn’t like should come up. That wouldn’t bother to put him into a jail if they had one.” Perhaps there was a sign, a signal, in his eyes again; perhaps not. Perhaps the negro saw it; perhaps not. The strap fell again, the buckle raking across the negro’s back. “you remember yet?” the sheriff said.”

There are a couple more scenes with that deputy and that sheriff, but they only reinforce what you’ve learned here about them. Both are very minor short interactions with characters.

Faulkner layers his story, you don’t know where he’s going exactly. The thing I loved about this book is that once he gets you to where you going, you feel like you’ve known all along where it’s heading. Though there were one or two return characters that surprised me and how they ended up to be tied into the story thirty years after their original appearance.

Read it.