Sunday, November 29, 2020
Saturday, November 28, 2020
Friday, November 27, 2020
As I mentioned in my previous review, I was feeling a lot of apprehension about the Harper Lee match up in my Then Versus Now Challenge. I love To Kill a Mockingbird with all my heart, but I was nervous about trying its sequel, Go Set a Watchman. This novel was released in 2015, over fifty years after Mockingbird was published. To say I was excited for it when I first heard the news would be an understatement. I was very interested to see how Scout's story would continue and I was especially excited to see more of my literary hero, Atticus Finch. However, as more details started to come out about the book, my anticipation began fading away. The legality of its publication was called into question and the reviews for it were decidedly mixed. I became almost afraid to read it. I worried that it might spoil my high opinion of Mockingbird. I didn't want to cast a shadow over one of my favorite novels, so I ended up pushing the book to the back of my to-be-read pile and avoided it. This year, however, I decided that enough was enough. I was finally going to give Go Set a Watchman a shot, come what may.
The history of Go Set a Watchman is worth noting. Harper Lee originally wrote this novel in 1957 and sold it to a publisher. Her editor worked with her on refining the text, and gave her the advice to restructure her story to be set earlier and to be told from the perspective of a younger version of her main character, Jean Louise "Scout" Finch. Over time, she gradually turned Go Set a Watchman into To Kill a Mockingbird, which was published in 1960 to widespread critical acclaim. Go Set a Watchman was never intended to be published in its original form, and it was never meant to be a sequel to anything. It was simply the first draft of Mockingbird.
When Go Set a Watchman was announced, it was almost instantly the subject of controversy. Accusations were made that unscrupulous agents or publishers were taking advantage of an elderly and infirm Harper Lee, who might not have understood what she was agreeing to in allowing the publication. Although an investigation was made into the matter and no wrongdoing was found, many still remained skeptical. Additionally, as more people read the text, it became clear that Watchman was not really a sequel, and pointed questions were asked about why it was being billed as such by its publisher. Many people started assuming this was a shameless cash grab, and boycotted the book on principle. In short, it was a total mess, but people's love for To Kill a Mockingbird was so great that the book sold millions of copies anyway.
The plot itself concerns Jean Louise Finch, who is 26 years old at the start of the novel. She has moved to New York, but is heading back to Maycomb for a two week vacation to visit her father. She is excited to reconnect with Atticus and her old childhood friend and romantic interest, Hank, but when she arrives in town she is disappointed with what she finds. Maycomb is completely engulfed in the racial tensions brought on by the Civil Rights Movement and all of her old friends are espousing extremely ugly views about the Black people in their community. Jean Louise, who has spent years living among a diverse crowd in New York, can't believe how closed-minded everyone is. Especially devastating is her discovery of Atticus and Hank's opinions. They do not support integration or Black people getting the right to vote, and are actively working within the community to slow down the NAACP's efforts.
Jean Louise remembers Atticus as someone who believes in rights and equality for everyone. After all, this was the same man that defended a black man against a rape allegation back when she was still going by the nickname "Scout." This new, racist version of him doesn't match with the image she had of her father in her head. She is deeply disturbed by this and eventually has a big argument with him. When he fails to budge in his views, Jean Louise must come to terms with the fact that her father is just a man, with faults like everyone else.
My initial worry when I started reading this was that it would somehow spoil To Kill a Mockingbird. As it turned out, I really didn't need to worry about that. Go Set a Watchman was so clearly never meant to be a sequel that it was very easy to not regard it as such. The details in it do not match up with the details in Mockingbird at all. Names, locations, and characteristics of characters are different between the two books. Significant plot points are not consistent from one book to the other. Sentences, and sometimes whole paragraphs, are word-for-word the same between the two, clearly showing how Lee took bits and pieces from Watchman to create Mockingbird. It utterly fails at being a sequel to anything, so it didn't ruin my perception of the original story. The reading became annoying after just a few pages though, because my brain kept picking out the inconsistencies as being "wrong." The biggest one of these was the revelation that in this story, Atticus' defense of Tom Robinson was successful. I literally laughed out loud when I read that because it was so wildly different to one of To Kill a Mockingbird's central themes. Marketing this as a sequel was completely disingenuous on the part of the publisher.
So then the question becomes, is Go Set a Watchman a good read as a standalone novel? What if this book was the only book we had from Harper Lee? Would it be praised and loved to the same extent? Sadly, the answer to that is a resounding no, at least for me. This novel has almost no plot. It's the story of a young woman who visits her hometown for a few days and is disappointed with how racist everyone is. While that's a realistic human experience, it does not make for an interesting novel. There are several flashbacks to her childhood sprinkled throughout the text, and these are probably the strongest parts of the story, but they lack the charm of Mockingbird and many of them are almost mean-spirited or too melancholy to enjoy. At only 278 pages of relatively large print, there's really not much to this story at all. Harper Lee is still an excellent writer, and you can see her skill peeking through in several passages, but overall this reads like exactly what it is - a first draft in need of more development.
In addition to this, several of the plot elements that did exist were clunky or disturbing, especially the events surrounding the character of Uncle Jack. This character was present in Mockingbird too, but almost all of the details about him were different and his role was small. Here, Jack is one of the main characters and he has an obsession with English literature that deeply impacts the way he communicates. Every time he tries to give advice to Jean Louise, it's buried under layers of allusion and metaphor to old English works. What little plot there is turns on her suddenly understanding a vague reference he makes to an old poem, which came off as a ridiculous gimmick rather than a clever plot device. He also hits Jean Louise in the face at one point in an effort to get her to pay attention to him, knocking her down and making her mouth bleed in the process. He then proceeds to get her drunk to the point where she more susceptible to his suggestions about how to handle her anger. This was supposed to be a learning experience for her, but it was very distasteful to me.
Speaking of distasteful, the racism in this one was difficult to get through. I'm not going to linger on this point, because I know it was supposed to be difficult. I'm sure it's realistic to the era, but it doesn't feel like reading all that bile is worth it in this book. In To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the major themes is that it's worth it to stand up for what is right, even when you know you aren't going to emerge victorious. It still ends with hope for the future. In Watchman, the major theme is that you have to just let racist people be racist and realize that everyone has flaws you can't change. It's depressing.
Tuesday, November 24, 2020
Total Books Read in 2020: 76
Monday, November 23, 2020
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
Classics Club (#16 on my list): 82/100 books completed <-- I definitely messed up counting somewhere over the years, so this number is a few books higher than I initially thought!
Total Books Read in 2020: 74
Monday, November 9, 2020
2. 20th Century Classic: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford (1915) - Completed April 2020
Saturday, November 7, 2020
My final prompt for the Back to the Classics Challenge was to read a classic with a movie adaptation. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was already on my Classics Club list and suited the category perfectly. The movie version of this novel is very famous in its own right, and I had somehow never seen it before. I decided that now was the time to read the book and then give the movie a try, to see how they compared.
The novel is told from the point of view of "Chief" Bromden, a long-term patient at a psychiatric hospital. He pretends like he is deaf and mute, but he can actually hear and speak just fine - he simply chooses not to interact with others. He struggles with paranoia and is subject to a lot of delusions. He believes that he and all the other patients are being controlled by something he calls the "combine," a vast mechanism that uses listening devices to break everyone's spirits and keep them in line. This idea is personified in Nurse Ratched, the head nurse on the ward. She controls the patients and staff with an iron fist, and employs several cruel strategies to keep everyone in their place. Bromden, and everyone else, are afraid of her.
Bromden is a keen observer as well, and as a result, he knows quite a lot about the other patients and staff at the hospital. Through his (unreliable) narration, he tells us the story of what happens when a new patient, Randle McMurphy, is admitted to his ward. Right away, McMurphy is obviously different from the rest of the men. He's loud, crude, and doesn't care much for authority. He's also extremely charismatic and quite fond of gambling. Right away, he begins making friends with the other patients and making friendly wagers with them. They bet on cards and many other random things over McMurphy's first few weeks. Eventually, as he grows closer and closer to the other patients, he starts to see them as more than easy marks. He begins to actually care about them a little and starts encouraging them to laugh and loosen up.
Of course, Nurse Ratched is aghast at these developments. McMurphy's unpredictable, boisterous behavior and his effect on the other patients are elements that she can't control, and it drives her crazy. Determined to regain her dominance over the ward, she exerts as much cruel, quiet pressure on the men as she can. Frustrated with her behavior, McMurphy sets up a new wager with the men. He bets them that he can get rid of Nurse Ratched in a week. This bet sets off a chain of events leading to a violent, shocking conclusion. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a story about the machine of American society, individuality, control, and what happens when mental health is thrown into that mix.
My thoughts on this book are very scattered, and I've been struggling to write this review for a few days now. I did enjoy reading it, and I think it's a unique story that gives its readers a lot to think about. Its characters are well developed, with McMurphy and Nurse Rached in particular being very memorable. The writing style was very readable too and the story was easy to get into. I liked its exploration of mental health issues in the sixties, including the use of electroshock therapy and lobotomies. It's clear that Kesey was no fan of how patients in these facilities were treated during this time and he does a good job conveying the barbarity of a lot of the practices typically employed. This feels like a notable postmodern classic when you are reading it, and it's clear to see why the work has endured over time. It's not exactly my favorite kind of book, but I can see why others love it. I'm sure the movie adaptation aids its popularity as well, as many of the performances in that are widely praised.
What stopped me from just writing a generally positive review and moving on here was how incredibly poorly it has aged. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are blatant throughout its pages. The black orderlies that work at the hospital are continually referred to using slurs (including the N-word at one point) and described as homosexual rapists, there is a Japanese nurse repeated referred to using a slur, and the female characters are all either evil or promiscuous. At one point, the men tell McMurphy that Nurse Rached is unbeatable because she is so old that no one can "get it up" for her to rape her into compliance, which is pretty horrible on several different levels. Of course, one can always make the argument that the time period the novel was written in excuses this. To an extent, I suppose it does. However, the sheer amount of offensive material in here seems extreme.
This novel, with it's blend of strong literary elements and outdated, offensive content made me question - at what point does a classic novel outlive its readability? If I were black, or gay, I certainly wouldn't feel like reading this was valuable or enriching to my life. As a woman, I was pretty close to feeling like it wasn't really worth the read as it was. I think this is one case where just watching the movie adaptation is probably enough, especially if you belong to one of the groups Kesey marginalizes.
So ultimately, this was a mixed bag for me. I settled on a three star review - a middle rating for a book I felt split on. The novel is clearly notable for its time period and the story is compelling. However, it has not aged well at all, which makes me question whether anyone really needs to read it anymore. There are so many wonderful novels out there in the world. I'm still not sure if the (admittedly sizable) literary merits of this one justify me spending my limited reading time on it.
Back to the Classics 2020 (A Classic Adaptation): 12/12 - Completed!
Total Books Read in 2020: 73