Go Set a Watchman


097) Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, finished finished September 24
five days

I didn't have particular expectations for this novel. I knew it was lost, and I assume lost usually happens for good reason. I knew it rejiggered some of the timelines and characters of To Kill a Mickingbird, but hey why not. But it is from Harper Lee who wrote, arguably, the most beloved novel of the 20th century.

First, I want to say that for the first hundred pages, I completely agreed with Lee's editor. It seemed obvious that there was a much better book about Scout as a kid buried under some boring stuff about her as a grownup. What was an insightful editor who could see that and talk her into writing that other novel instead! #weneededitors

As I read deeper, I started to wonder if maybe the editor wasn't just afraid to sell this particular book---that it was too topical to land well. At this stage, I tended to compare it to another novel I'm reading now that came out four years after TKAM and also deals with topical race issues. That book---and, I was thinking during this stretch, Go Set a Watchman---are interesting more as documents of their time than as works of literature. Fascinating in a charming/horrible way but without much to say about our current situation.

Then I kept reading. And the book began to move me, upset me, break my heart. Jean Louise (as Scout is almost always known by now) feels almost (almost) modern and her reactions to her hometown's reactions to the NAACP and Supreme Court decisions and other race-centered changes do seem applicable to 2015.

Then the book, without letting up on its emotional hold on me, began to feel topical. Very topical.

Much has been made of Atticus as racist in this novel. And much e-ink has been spilled over how he was such a different character in TKAM. That, my friends, smacks of wishful thinking.

Yes, TKAM sets Atticus up as a hero for equality in a rough time. But he had nothing to lose but his self-respect in the 1930s. What's terrifying about GSAW is not an "alternate" version of Atticus but the very real possibility that this is exactly what Atticus would have been like twenty years later at age 72 when he does have something to lose.

This Atticus is certainly a midcentury Southern man, but he doesn't sound that different from Dumbo hipsters or those shouting cuckservative. He sounds, in other words, like 2015. Less pretty than the words we take out in public, but a modern rational racist who shakes his head sadly beause you just can't see the truth of things right in front of you. He's not racist! He just sees things as they actually are!

In other words, TKAM Atticus is who we aspire to pretend to be. GSAW is who we are occasionally forced to confront is (even now) our true identity.

The fact is that America has a troubled racist past and magical, overnight, universal colorblindness won't solve our problems.

Suddenly, Go Set a Watchman feels like a very important book for 2015.

It's hard to say how effective this novel would be without it's ability to play off one of the most read and remembered novels of the last hundred years. We've had fifty years (more than!) to turn TKAM into mythology, into hopeful history, into a guidebook. And so when this novel comes tromping in and knocking down the stage dressing, it's particularly shocking.

Let's get to the mechanics of the novel. Lee does some interesting things with dialogue (her reliance on an ellipses-based effect to make crowd noise is interesting and mostly effective) and interior monologue (her slipping from the third-person to Jean Louise's actual thoughts are frequently awkward and too irregular at the beginning---rough draft stuff that would have been fixed had it been published then). Her use of flashback is, let's say, too voluminous (though, thanks to TKAM, we like seeing scenes of Scout and the now-deceased Jem back in high school, etc, even if they do take up more space than makes sense for this novel's purposes). And it's just difficult to judge the adequacy of Lee's character development when we come into this novel already knowing these characters intimately.

So no, it's probably not the best-written book to come out this year. But I don't know of any other work of fiction that might force us into important (if awkward) conversations.

For now, I'm just grateful for the moments it set me stunned, silent, thoughtful.

(Incidentally, I've been reading some of the Amazon reviews, many of which are quite insightful---including the obvious fact that the pain Watchman causes us is largely because Atticus is our hero just as he is Scout's---like Scout, we grew up with him and he was magnificent and perfect. And, just like Scout, now that we have seen the chinks, we, alas, can see they've been there all along.)

A few other comments:
This novel---even though it's in third person---is much more solipsistic than TKAM.

Uncle Jack is an example of a young writer showing off her education.

Jean Louise's epiphany/catharsis at the end is a fascinating study. I've never read anything quite comparable and I'm still not quite sure how to describe it.

Atticus and Jack smiling at Jean Louise at the end is almost redemptive. But only if you can still accept Atticus as God. If you can't, it's rather ambiguous. It's another curious moment. And hard to tell how "finished" it is.

The cover will have you think that "watchman" is symbolic of the conscience. While true, it doesn't mean much until you realize Jean Louise is the watchman.
Share your own in the comments.

Previously in 2015 . . . . :


You know, I hated book reports back in elementary school


096) North 40 (volume one) by Aaron Williams and Fiona Staples, finished September 23

I like the notion of Lovecraftian horror in a small Southern town via comics. And the ecstatic blurbs suggest this was muy successful. And I liked a lot of the characters and imagery and it started to get interesting now and then. But in the end, I never cared. It's a creative blending of cliches, but the bursts of true originality were too far between.

five days


095) That Smell and Notes from Prison by Sonallah Ibrahim (Robyn Creswell translation), finished September 18

This is two books. Plus some, if you think about it. So I'll deal with them in pieces.

Translator's introduction
This history of the author and of midcentury Egyptian communists and of other bits o' history I know nearly nothing of was fascinating. I found wonderful parallels to Nineteen Eighty-Four for instance. Plus I love anyone's discussion of how they made choices while translating. All fine stuff. In some ways, I must admit, my favorite part of this volume.

That Smell
This was kind of pedestrian, frankly. Long paragraphs, stream of consciousness....you know the type. I didn't really find anything that would make me recommend this section to you. What's most interesting is why it ended up getting censored. I'm fascinated that the thought police were most upset by the protagonist's failure to have sex with a prostitute. I mean---they were upset by the masturbation too (which, I thought, was more startling than the introduction had led me to believe)---but shouldn't they have been most upset by the constant, oppressive police present as displayed? Maybe they couldn't see anything wrong with that, thus, etc. Anyway. I get it as an important cultural document. I don't get it as a good novella.

Author's note
This erstwhile introduction is weird. Partly a talking of why the book was important. Some details of its censoring and banning. Some complaining about those who didn't get it. Some navelgazing. Some not really remembering what he wrote.

Notes from prison
Just that. Scraps written on cigarette papers. The sort of whiny twenty-year-old-writer musings we've all scratched down at some time. Part seeking for a tradition to align oneself with; part deep seated need to write something utterly new and unprecedented. While there are some interesting insights, for anyone who once was filled with artistic self-importance, it stinks of adolescent bloat. If anyone wants, I can edit a book of my self-important ramblings too. I'm sure there's some cogent moments of literary analysis and some well phrased nonthoughts on art buried in those notebooks to sweeten the horror.
four weeks


094) Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar, finished September 17

Look: Louis Sachar is a great writer. Holes is amazing. Dogs Don't Tell Jokes is amazing. Fuzzy Mud, thus, is a disappointment.

It's packaged to look like part of the current fun that is kids in dangerous adventures (Variant is a good example), and its bitesized chapters help propel the action along. And the danger seems real while its happening (though Sachar isn't willing to make it as real as I thought he would).

I can sum up the plot by saying this is a fearmongering anti-GMO tirade starring kids in the mutant woods. And, naturally, scientists. The scientists of Fuzzy Mud are broken into two categories: those who are nuts and those who are stupidly optimistic. Both sets are dangerously overconfident in their findings.

Oh: and one veterinarian who apparently has a Batcave-level lab in which he can instantly discover that turtle skin has exactly one enzyme no other animal has and can magically turn it into a medical treatment. This is 1960's Stan Lee b******t-level nonsense. The science here is TERRIBLE which is itself terrible because this book is only barely pretending to be anything other than a politicization of a science the author seems to have no knowledge of.

Which is a shame because the 2× thing was cool....

I'll give you one example of the nuttiness of Fuzzy Mud's science.

The genetically engineered frankengerm eats up the skin and cuts nerve connections yet as soon as someone's injected with turtle enzymes, not only does the skin grow back nearly perfectly, but apparently there's complete nerve regeneration. Even eyes make a near-full recovery. I'll tell you what: we should all be injecting turtle enzymes! Viva la immortality!

Which brings me back to Sachar's decision not to kill (or even deal longterm damage to) any named characters. Not only is it a bit cowardly, but it undercuts his desire to scare the pants off kids re GMOs. If you're going to use narrative to support bad science, why not use all to tools at your disposal? I don't get it.

Hhh. Maybe it's just the problem (discussed here) that talking about science gone wrong naturally leads to the moral argument Don't Do Science, even if that's not what you actually wish to say. Just because what else is there to say?

I just thought Sachar would try harder. He doesn't seem like the sort to leave things so muddy....
four days


093) Castle Waiting Volume 2 by Linda Medley, finished September 15

Like the last volume, I'm not sure I have the words to express how much I love this book. I love it. (How's that?)

Something interesting about this volume which I wasn't sure about at first, but certainly came around on, was the insertion of so many flashbacks. The first volume had flashbacks, but largely they were of characters telling their own stories. This time, they are actual flashbacks. Most of them of Jain's old life, leading us to realize that what we thought we knew of her past was pretty wrong. What's right? Well. We still don't know. WE NEED VOLUME THREE, LINDA MEDLEY. FANTAGRAPHICS! WIELD YOUR WHIP!

But this gets to one of the aspects of Castle Waiting I most like. Castle Waiting lets life unfold at its own casual pace. Its characters just get to live their lives.

The marketing of the books calls this "Fan-Favorite Feminist Fairy Tale" (or along those words) because its about everyday life. I guess it's feminist in the way Ulrich is feminist. Which is to say if real people living real lives is feminist, well gee whiz. No one should be opposed to that, no matter how blockheaded.

Anyway. I really like Castle Waiting is my point. Here are some images from this volume.

under a week

Previously in 2015 . . . . :


Unfinished Books: Why Did the Chicken Cross the World?: The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization


I want to say up front that this is an Unfinished Book and NOT a Rejected Book, even though I will largely be complaining about its failures. I really did plan to finish the book even so, but its failings made it hard to keep picking up. Basically, after we got back from LA and I had access to other books, I just couldn't convince myself to keep reading even though I was fascinated by the subject matter.

The problem was that Lawler lacks a clear sense of where the interest in his stories lies. He'll drag along along through tangential trivia and skip lightly over challenging demanding aspect of the tale. This leads to frustration or boredom, back and forth between the two. Which is a shame because, as I said, there is much of interest here, historical, sociological, and pressingly contemporary.

I wonder if he just had a hard time making the leap to booklength nonfiction? I dunno. It was disappointing though.

I really wanted to learn about chickens.



Unfinished Books: The David Foster Wallace Reader


I've always ignored David Foster Wallace. He wrote massive messes like Infinite Jest and since I didn't find him when I was into artsy messes, I just wasn't interested. Even after watching an excellent YouTube video of his water speech (not this video---the one I saw was animated, but alas I canna find it). But the water video, seen years ago, supplemented by the biopic trailer seen in a theater, meant that when I saw this 963pp READER on the library's NEW shelves, I picked it up. I first looked for "This Is Water" but it was MIA so I skimmed the nonfiction for something short. Found such a thing, but while turning there bumped into "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"---a phrase I did not know was Wallace's. I started that instead, not knowing it was essentially a small book of itself.

I loved it. Besides being human and funny and sharp and well written &c, it captured everything I assume must be true about cruises and exactly why I don't ever want to go on one. Thank you very much, Mr Wallace. Now when someone invites me, I can just send them to you.

Then I did read some of the shorter works and yes they were nice. But my favorite pieces from the book where the longer essays---add to "A Supposedly Fun Thing" those about television and the Illinois State Fair. The only piece of fiction I made it through was a work from his undergrad days, a punchy drag about depression and other fun crimes our minds commit.

I've renewed the book twice which means when it's due in three days from this writing [ed. note: this time has now passed], I will have had it nine weeks. Most of those weeks consist of days I didn't touch the book, but realizing our end was drawing nigh, I've spent the last couple days downing as many pages as possible.

Among this cramming were pages I dogeared (don't tell!) because I want to steal them for pedagogical reasons. Specifically, elements of his own syllabi written for classes he taught. I would like to immediately implement many of his strategies, but here's a fact: what works for twelve students a semester is not practical nor practicable when one is responsible for 107 (this semester's count, divided over three classes). Le sigh.

Anyway, the point is maybe I should just buy myself a copy. Perhaps someday I'll even trust him enough to consider reading Infinite Jest. I rather doubt it, but maybe someday I'll get therapy and perhaps explain to myself how I changed from eager participant in the madness to strict apostate.


Every single one of these is worth your time. Every single one.


092) Wesley the Owl: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl by Stacey O'Brien, finished September 5

We listened to this book (read by Renée Raudman) early in the summer, but lost it then had to recheck it out and anyway we finally finished it. We had to, hassles or no. It's ineffably charming and heartfelt and even me, still burnt out on animal books from twenty years ago, loved it.

O'Brien can get away with a lot of weird stuff because she establishes her scientific credentials early and often. I don't know what hardcore professional scientists think of her little book and her little theories, but she makes even things like telepathy tough to discount. But that's just some stuff tacked on at the end. The bulk of the book is charming stories about a woman living with an owl. It's cinematic stuff. I mean---you'd have to animate and I don't know what story you'd tack on, but you'll be jealous you didn't get to be there watching.
over two months


091) The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink, finished September 5

I'm not sure how I got to this article, but it's what turned me onto Nell Zink, middle-aged wunderkind. She's a fascinating personality. Read the article. Don't let Franzen's enthusiasm turn you off her.

I wasn't interested in her overly meta novel and her newest isn't in my library's catalogue, so I picked up The Wallcreeper about American's watching birds and committing adultery in modern Germany. The novel starts with a killer line (The New Yorker calls it "unimprovable") and continues with marvelous images and metaphors. I had noted down three to share with you, but the book isn't searchable on Amazon so now I have no real way to find them. Which is a shame because, obviously, phrasing matters in situations like this. But to ballpark two of them:
a river envelops a city like a uterine wall

crows walk about like cops looking for a body
Yeah. They were better in the original. I didn't realize how lazy Amazon was making me.

Anyway, our protagonist has no clear direction in her life, but her life feels real and honest so even when it's absurd or nonsensical, we remain with her. Even if the last couple pages feel a bit moralizey.

I had a lot more to say about this, but I finished reading it just before a three-day trip and Amazon is hiding lines from me so I guess that's that.

Anyway, wallcreepers are LBJs with flashes of color in their wings. Don't hit one with your car.
maybe two weeks


090) The Animal Family by Randall Harrell, finished September 4

Of course you remember eight years ago when I read The Bat-Poet? I knew you would.

This is another book for the young by the great American poet and critic and this one is utterly different in all respects aside from being beautiful and wonderful and moving and excellent. Again with illustrations from Maurice Sendak (these even more restrained).

I learned of this book at the Hammer gift shop. I didn't buy it but neither did I forget it. And now I have read the library's copy and I almost wish I'd bought it (except that no one in this house ever rereads anything).

Since our last Jarrell, the Big O has grown from preliterate to bookcrazy. He's started this one and he's enjoyed it so far. I hope he finishes it.

In short: A man lives alone on a coastside, alone since his parents died long ago. He befriends a mermaid who learns his language and comes to live with him. They can't have children but over time adopt a bear cub, a lynx cub, and a shipwrecked toddler.

And holy crap but is it beautiful and wonderful and moving and excellent!

You would be crazy not to read it. If you were here, I would start reading it to you right now.

over a month methinks

Previously in 2014 . . . . :


Meh. The next post will be better.


089) Zenith: Phase 1 by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, finished September 4

Tiny bite-sized pieces from the '80's 2000AD about some alternate-universe contemporary Great British superheroishness. A pleasant read. Used the teensy-bit serialized form well. Not surprising to learn Morrison goes on to bigger things. That's all.
an evening


087) Anthem by Ayn Rand, finished September 2

Oops. I forgot about this one. Largely because reading it with a class for the millionth time doesn't seem that notable. But I suppose I'll include it this time.

I have to say: reading Anthem as many times as I have now, its flaws are multiplying rapidly. It's still a great book to read with freshmen (look! I can see the deep stuff! 'cause it's right on the surface!) but I do wonder how much longer I can stand it.


088) The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen and Rebecca Guay, finished September 1

Random is weird. This is the third book in a row I've read that features Jane Yolen's writing and her name on the cover. Wild.

Anyway, I quite liked this book. The writing feels grounded in a real place and time while simultaneously being poetic and frequently plebian and funny.

It's the story of a small village attacked by a dragon centuries since dragons had been destroyed. Stars a young woman whose father is the first victim. It's also a romance. In fact, I would argue that the romantic elements gain primacy by the end of the tale. Even though, from a writing standpoint, these aspect of the story is particularly underdeveloped.

But pause that and let's talk about Guay's art.

It's lush, it has depth, it's varied. Her style runs from Pre-Raphaelite to near sketch within the story. It would make sense to spend some time considering why she switches from one to another. But even at her lightest touch, she has a clear understanding of anatomy and gesture and although the energy is subdued, the sense of life is powerful.

If I hadn't been finishing late at night and anxious to turn off the light and sleep, I would have spent more time lost in the imagery. And if I had done so, I wouldn't have felt the sense of underdevelopment I mentioned earlier. See, Yolen trusts us to give her artist the time she deserves. And when we do, we get the sense of time passing that just reading the words and flipping the page prevents.

In other words, there's some nice synergy yall, going on between words and paint, if we slow down and let it wash over us.

I should read it again...maybe this time with a timer, requiring me to make it to the beep before turning the page....
one day

Previously in 2014 . . . . :