To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Folio Society, 2003, 270 p, including 7 p introduction by Albert French. Illustrated by Aafke Brouwer.

To Kill a Mockingbird cover

Like most other book readers I had noted with interest the discovery and imminent publication of the pre/se/quel of To Kill a Mockingbird yet while I had seen the film I hadn’t actually read the book. In the week of Go Set a Watchman’s publication I thought it was about time to remedy that deficiency so picked up the good lady’s sumptuous Folio Society edition of the novel.

And it is as good as its reputation has it. Memorable characters; not only Atticus, Jem and Scout herself but also Mrs Dubose, Dolphus Raymond, the maid Calpurnia and the perfect absence – until his eventual intervention in the plot – of Boo Radley. Of the three most common preoccupations of literature the narrator’s supposed age of course means that there is no sex here – and there is not much love either, except of the familial kind – but there is death. The dynamics of life in the Finch household are determined by the lack of Scout’s and Jem’s mother; Calpurnia acts in loco parentis but cannot have similar authority.

It is only in retrospect that the novel can be seen as dominated by the subject of racial attitudes and prejudice; up to the intrusion of the court case it is a portrayal of a reasonably idyllic childhood (schooling traumas and running the gauntlet of the Radley place excepted) and while in the context of Tom Robinson’s trial the subject of rape is mentioned, there is actually none described in the book. In many ways this is a perfectly straightforward coming of age/gaining of wisdom story, it is the instrument by which the knowledge is gained that makes it unusual and memorable; backed up by the quality of the writing. I did feel, though, that there was a slight longueur between the trial and the dénouement, an expository tone.

Atticus is the perfect father for a girl with tomboy tendencies, arguably too perfect in his, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win,” though his definition, apropos Mrs Dubose, of real courage as, “when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what,” bears repetition – even if he is prepared to ignore her racism. An eight year-old may still be young enough to idealise her father but it must be remembered that the narrator isn’t actually (the almost-nine-year-old) Scout, but an older version remembering her younger self.

The language is of its time, the words negroes and nigger occurring frequently but the phrase “the smell of clean negro” made me wonder how that differed from the smell of clean anybody else. (I suppose the smell of not-clean negro is much the same as of not-clean anybody else too.)

Lee hits on a truth when she has Scout observe that in the negroes’ church, “I was confronted with the Impurity of Women doctrine that seemed to preoccupy all clergymen,” – make that all religions – and her eight year-old has the true wisdom of a child when she tells us that, “one must lie under certain circumstances and at all times when one can’t do anything about them.”

To Kill a Mockingbird is a fine first novel by anyone’s standards and addresses important issues yet when I put it down I reflected on how little books such as this matter. The text implied progress in that Tom Robinson’s conviction took hours rather than minutes yet the subject matter was still relevant when the novel was published twenty four years after the time in which the events it portrays were set. In the introduction to this edition’s first printing Albert French recalls travelling into the South in 1963 to train as a marine and feeling threatened as a result, but as an old man, nearly forty years after that, in 1996, says, “The crosses still burn and racism still haunts America.” Nigh on twenty years still further on, the problem remains.

Pedant’s corner:- As a Folio Society edition the printing is mostly in British English (eg coloured rather than colored) but furore was given without its final “e” and there was “waked up in the morning”.

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2007, 289 p. Originally published in 1980. Borrowed from a threatened library.

Mockingbird cover

Mockingbird is set in the 25th century in a dystopia wherein humans are kept docile by drugs, living with someone is a crime, Individuality and Privacy (definitely capitalised) valued above all else, no-one can read and no children are being born.

Robert Spofforth is an android of the highest specification; a Make Nine, powered by a controlled fusion battery, the only one of his kind to be created so as not to be able to kill itself as other Make Nines had done. And it (he?) wants to die. Its (his) viewpoint is rendered in the third person whereas those of Paul Bentley, a human who having taught himself how to read comes to Spofforth requesting a job as a reading tutor only to be refused, and Mary Lou Borne, whom Bentley has in turn taught to read, are in the form of first person journals. The ramifications of the interactions between these three are worked out over the course of the book as Spofforth sends Bentley to prison and takes Mary Lou to live with him (of necessity platonically.) Spofforth is, of course, almost more human than the humans in the book, certainly compared to the illiterate masses (who, though, appear only sketchily, apart from Bentley’s fellow prisoners and the religious sect he encounters after his escape.)

Mockingbird is part tragedy, part love story, part travelogue of this strange new world, a meditation on what it means to be human and how easily that could be thrown away, or drifted from. Its message of the importance to humanity of the capacity to read is perhaps even more timely now than when it was written.

Pedant’s corner:- The text was the USian one. Plus:- “oblivious of their presence” (oblivious to…) “standing there to the House of Reptiles” (in the House,) “pictures on one walk of the room (on one wall,) “felt of them with her fingers” (felt them.) “‘What become of her?’” (became, though it was in dialogue and could have been meant to be ungrammatical,) “but I do not think about the pain” (this was in a look back so “did not think”,) “except that It was wrapped” (it,) “‘I’d take ever damn one of them’” (every,) in Jesus’ name (Jesus’s,) “‘I had waked her’” (maybe not just an Alabama thing, then. But still; woken.)

Something Changed 41: Wake Up Boo

This became one of my elder son’s favourite songs when it was released. (He was somewhat precocious about liking music.) It is a great joyful piece of pop.

I had heard the song myself but it was some time before I realised what the band’s name was and made the connection to To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Boo Radleys: Wake Up Boo

More Bookshelf Travelling for Insane Times

Only one photo this week.

Folio Society Books

These shelves contain beautifully produced, slip-cased books published by the Folio Society (with books from other publishers scattered among them.) Some were bought by the good lady but they all belong together.

They are so sumptuous that it is almost a crime to pick them up and read them. Of these particullar editions I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird; Goodbye to All That; Revolt in the Desert; England, Their England; Goodbye to Berlin and The Fire of Liberty.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Frank Herbert’s Dune were Christmas (or birthday) presents from my younger son. I had paperback copies already but was delighted to get these. Barbara Tuchman’s The Zimmerman Telegram is also a doubler.

Hey! A list!

I’ve just discovered through Ian Sales’s blog that the BBC has produced a list of “100 Books that Shaped our World.” It’s as idiosyncratic as any such list always is.

Ian has started a list of his own (with different criteria) of which you can see the first instalment via the link above. Nina Allan has also published her own list.

I doubt that I could go up to anything like 100 on the books that shaped me and my reading so I’m not even going to try except to say my love of Science Fiction was engendered by reading the SF of Captain W E Johns and Patrick Moore out of the children’s section of Dumbarton Library (in the basement, accessed via an outside door) and, once I’d graduated to the adult floor, the yellow covered Gollancz hardbacks.

Two exceptions.

I was about to give up reading SF when I read Robert Silverberg’s The Man in the Maze. It’s not his best but it’s one from the 1960s, in the “revival” stage of his career after he came back to SF and wrote stories the way they ought to be done – as distinct from the less considered works he’d written in the 1950s. It made me realise that SF could be literature.

So too, in spades, did Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

Of the BBC’s list the ones I’ve read are in bold (19.) If I’ve read one or part of a series it’s in italics (2.) Some others here are on my tbr pile.

Beloved – Toni Morrison
Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
Fugitive Pieces – Anne Michaels
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
Small Island – Andrea Levy
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy
Things Fall Apart – Chinua Achebe
White Teeth – Zadie Smith

Love, Sex & Romance
Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
Forever – Judy Blume
Giovanni’s Room – James Baldwin
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
Riders – Jilly Cooper
Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
The Far Pavilions – M. M. Kaye
The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak
The Passion – Jeanette Winterson
The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton

City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
Eye of the Needle – Ken Follett
For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
His Dark Materials Trilogy – Philip Pullman
Ivanhoe – Walter Scott
Mr Standfast – John Buchan
The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins
The Jack Aubrey Novels – Patrick O’Brian
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy – J.R.R. Tolkien

Life, Death & Other Worlds
A Game of Thrones – George R. R. Martin
Astonishing the Gods – Ben Okri
Dune – Frank Herbert
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
The Chronicles of Narnia – C. S. Lewis
The Discworld Series – Terry Pratchett
The Earthsea Trilogy – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Sandman Series – Neil Gaiman
The Road – Cormac McCarthy

Politics, Power & Protest
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie
Lord of the Flies – William Golding
Noughts & Crosses – Malorie Blackman
Strumpet City – James Plunkett
The Color Purple – Alice Walker
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Unless – Carol Shields

Class & Society
A House for Mr Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee
Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens
Poor Cow – Nell Dunn
Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – Alan Sillitoe
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

Coming of Age
Emily of New Moon – L. M. Montgomery
Golden Child – Claire Adam
Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
So Long, See You Tomorrow – William Maxwell
Swami and Friends – R. K. Narayan
The Country Girls – Edna O’Brien
The Harry Potter series – J. K. Rowling
The Outsiders – S. E. Hinton
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ – Sue Townsend
The Twilight Saga – Stephenie Meyer

Family & Friendship
A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
Ballet Shoes – Noel Streatfeild
Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith

Middlemarch – George Eliot
Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin
The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë
The Witches – Roald Dahl

Crime & Conflict
American Tabloid – James Ellroy
American War – Omar El Akkad
Ice Candy Man – Bapsi Sidhwa
Rebecca -Daphne du Maurier
Regeneration – Pat Barker
The Children of Men – P.D. James
The Hound of the Baskervilles – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Reluctant Fundamentalist – Mohsin Hamid
The Talented Mr Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Rule Breakers
A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
Bartleby, the Scrivener – Herman Melville
Habibi – Craig Thompson
How to be Both – Ali Smith
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell

Psmith, Journalist – P. G. Wodehouse
The Moor’s Last Sigh – Salman Rushdie
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde

Harper Lee

While the blog was on hiatus US author Harper Lee, famous for writing To Kill a Mockingbird died.

That book’s sequel/prequel Go Set a Watchman was published – eliciting dismay among some of Mockingbird‘s admirers – only last year yet I (see link) found it to be
a fine, accomplished, novel.

Lee was never going to write another book. In a sense it is sad that the runaway success of To Kill a Mockingbird effectively brought her literary career to an end.

Both her books make for a fine legacy, though.

Nelle Harper Lee: 28/4/1926 – 19/2/2016. So it goes.

My 2015 in Books

This has been a good year for books with me though I didn’t read much of what I had intended to as first I was distracted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books and then by the threat to local libraries – a threat which has now become a firm decision. As a result the tbr pile has got higher and higher as I continued to buy books and didn’t get round to reading many of them.

My books of the year were (in order of reading):-
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Electric Brae by Andrew Greig
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
Europe in Autumn by Dave Hutchinson
Traveller of the Century by Andrés Neuman
The Affair in Arcady by James Wellard
Flemington and Tales from Angus by Violet Jacob
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi
Song of Time by Ian R MacLeod
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison
The Bridge Over the Drina by Ivo Andrić
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Europe at Midnight by Dave Hutchinson
The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
Born Free by Laura Hird
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

If you were counting that’s 25 in all, of which 15 were by male authors and 10 by women, 8 had SF/fantasy elements and 11 were Scottish (in the broadest sense of inclusion.)

Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee

William Heinemann, 2015, 290 p. Borrowed from a threatened library.

 Go Set A Watchman cover

A now twenty-six year-old Jean Louise Finch, familiar to us as Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, returns from New York on an annual visit to her childhood home in Maycomb County. At first things seem as normal but she soon finds that in her absence things have changed. The local Negroes, encouraged by the NAACP*, have begun to resist the strictures that have held them in their place (“besides being shiftless now they look at you with open insolence”) and the white inhabitants – even her would-be husband Henry and, crucially, her father Atticus – are involved in an effort to keep them in it.

Within all this there are flashback scenes relating incidents in Jean Louise’s life in growing from childhood through adolescence. In these it is noteworthy that the famous trial from To Kill a Mockingbird (here mentioned all but peripherally) had a different outcome – and slightly different genesis – to the one Jean Louise remembers here. [Either way round, Lee was clearly not just writing her own life story but manipulating any source material to novelistic ends.]

Where Atticus was at the core of the earlier book here it is Scout’s Uncle Jack – who reveals himself to be mistrustful of government attempts to ameliorate people’s condition. He tells her the soldiers of the Confederacy “fought to preserve their identity. Their political identity, their personal identity,” not for slavery and, “Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman is his conscience.” He recognises her fatal flaw. She is colour blind. She believes, has always believed, in treating everybody with the same respect. She thought her father was exactly the same, regarded him as God for too long. In a striking sentence Jack says, “Prejudice and faith have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.”

I’m at a loss to understand the controversy and disappointment this book caused. Yes Atticus is revealed as flawed but the signs of that were there in the earlier book. He had the attitude then – repeated here – that “the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.” (Well. All that can be said to that is who was responsible for the circumstance?)

Those of a nervous disposition may be upset by the use of the “n” word (Atticus is guilty here, among others) but that would be historically accurate.

The stratification of small town US Society – class-obsessed, a Negro is always a Negro, white trash always white trash, Scout’s Aunt does not think Henry a suitable husband for her even though he is Atticus’s protégé – is once again laid bare but in a contemporary (when written) setting. Perhaps it was this that led to the book’s rejection when first submitted.

Forget any quibbles. Go Set a Watchman is an entirely acceptable and very well written coming of age, time of changes, novel.

*I assumed this stood for the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.

Pedant’s corner:- “the small group were” (was,) waked up (this must be an Alabama thing, it was in Mockingbird too,) and again there was the “smell of clean Negro”, for goodness’ sake (goodness’s sake,)

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