Saturday, July 11, 2015

GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee, Chapter One

I didn’t want to do it to her… but I did it. I read Chapter One of Nelle Harper Lee's new/old book. The chapter was released a few days ago by the Wall Street Journal, which is owned by News Corp, also the parent company of the book’s publisher, HarperCollins. I mean, whuddidyouthink? Sometimes a manuscript, in the hand of one man, is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another.

I couldn’t help myself. On moral grounds, I didn’t preorder. Why not let our Lady of Letters go out in a more dignified fashion? But having taught TKAM many times, and not being able to count self-control among my virtues, I capitulated and read the first chapter.

And yes, it reads like the sophomoric fan fiction version of her more mature—and well edited—classic. It’s full of tired, easy phrases, stock portrayals and awkward tense construction—signs of a writing newby. But a sentence here and there hint at the sharp, brilliant writing in TKAM. And like seeing the hidden paint layers of a famous canvas, it’s fascinating. As for Atticus the racist—the fodder for much discussion on social media, largely by people who don’t seem to have read the book yet—that hasn’t come up in Chapter One. Perhaps it will offer a more unvarnished look at attitudes about race in the Jim Crow South among ‘progressive’ whites, than Atticus the hero. Lord knows we need more honest discussion.

I’ve been brought to tears by the poignancy and beauty of certain passages in To Kill a Mockingbird virtually every time I read them aloud to 8th graders, or they read them aloud to me. I’ve been stopped in my tracks over and over by a sentence, a paragraph, a description, a shift in point of view, thinking “How does she do that?” And yeah, each time I teach the book, I grapple afresh with how to tackle the sprinkling of anachronistic and offensive passages about race and gender and some problematic characterizations, without tamping down the deeply important message or the joy of the read. Harper Lee had a lot of it right, but she was a product of her time and place.

As for Watchman, everyone needs a good editor. Everyone needs time to develop as a writer. Our literary elders should be cared for, and their accomplishments honored and protected. Shame, shame, News Corp. Will I read the rest of it?  It might be a little like shootin’ a mockingbird.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

HOTEL DU LAC by Anita Brookner


What was contemporary fiction like before we packed everyone off to MFA factories to practice literary pyrotechnics?

The cottage I’m in this month has the best library of any of the scores of vacation houses I’ve rented in my life. I arrived with my usual crate of summer reads, and found I didn’t need any of them. (Hard-gotten--four titles by trading in seven entire crates of old books at The Strand, two via a half-price Groupon from Book Culture, and the rest purchased on my educator’s discount at the big bad B & N—why not take them home, save them for later, and read what’s here?)

Brookner was one of those writers I’d known about forever and never read. Hotel du Lac, which won the Booker Prize in 1986, is about an unassuming writer of romance novels who is packed off to a discreet Swiss hotel—yup, by a lake—retreat fashion, after committing some sort of indiscretion, which we’ll find out about in due time. I mean… who can resist that? Certainly not this former YA romance writer, currently in the summer 2015 middle-of-nowhere hideaway.

Raise your hand if you’re tired of showy sentences—impressive though they may be—that scream “Look at me,” and are written by writing school insiders with pretty faces, alluring authors’ bios and good jacket photos. Brookner was a pro before all that. Her prose is as understated as the heroine of this novel, but fiercely clever—funny, acerbic, and with just the right verb or adjective, just the right detail noted. And she’s a wonderful storyteller.

This is a great summer read!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

THE NEW JIM CROW by Michelle Alexander; QUIET by Susan Cain; A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra; THE DUKE OF DECEPTION by Geoffrey Wolfe; DEPLOYMENT by Phil Klay; Lonely Planet Cambodia

Oh, dear. I haven’t updated my reading blog since January. Can’t remember what I was reading six months ago; going to have to chalk up a few lost titles. Last five I remember (plus LP Cambodia with the hopes that it’s the next adventure) are:

THE NEW JIM CROW by Michelle Alexander
A must read for anyone who cares about racial equity. Not so much for the sentences, though her writing is clear and cogent, but for the ideas and information. Do not miss.

QUIET: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Again, this one is for the ideas and information, not the sentences. I read it to better understand the bf, a classic introvert, but wound up contemplating how to gauge the different ways people roll (not limited to introvert or extrovert), and how to give them what they need. As an educator and as someone who struggles with a big EQ learning curve, a deeply valuable read.

Absolutely beautifully written and constructed. I admit that the combination of not knowing much about Chechnya, plus the nonlinear structure made me feel lost and made the book hard work at first. But perseverance paid off. This is a gorgeous novel.

I’ve been selling his brother Tobias’ memoir, This Boy’s Life, to my friends and students for years. This one is just as good.  When the Wolfe brothers’ parents split up, Tobias went with mom and Geoffrey went with Dad. Tobias writes about life with her, Geoffrey life with him. Fascinating, funny, insightful.

Being touted as this generation’s The Things They Carried (one of my all-time favorites). Deployment is worth reading, but Klay is no Tim O’Brien. (I mean, who is?)

LP Cambodia.
Hit me up if you’ve been there and have suggestions.