Sunday, August 30, 2015

Go Set A Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I must admit that I felt a great deal of trepidation before I finally decided to read Go Set A Watchman. I had heard the leaked reviews that Atticus Finch (the beloved icon of reason and justice in To Kill A Mockingbird) was a racist supporter of segregation in this book. This was hard for me to accept, as much as I admire that character, and as much as I love that book – I’ve read it 30-40 times in my lifetime, and each time I appreciate it more, and get something new out of it. So, it was with trembling fingers that I finally picked it up to read. But it was very much worth it!

First, one must keep in mind that this book isn’t a true sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird – it was submitted to the publisher, who requested that Ms. Lee rewrite it to focus on the character of Scout as a young girl. However, for a fan of Mockingbird, it’s hard to not read it as a sequel – most of the same characters are present (with the notable exception of Boo Radley.) And Scout is very much the same, even though this story takes place about 20 years after the events in Mockingbird. Scout is in her mid-twenties, but is still the impetuous, independent person we saw in Mockingbird. In this new book, she is coming home (from NYC) for a visit with her family and her beau. It is very much a coming-of-age story – even though Scout is an adult – as she is forced to confront some things in her family and in her own life that will truly set her on her feet as her own person.


The first part of the novel feels much the same as Mockingbird – Scout fights with her Aunt Alexandra (that pillar of imperial southern women) just as she did as a child, and her memories of youthful escapades could easily fit into the pages of Mockingbird. Things take a decided turn toward new territory when Scout surreptitiously attends a meeting of the ‘town council’ which Atticus chairs, only to find it is a meeting about how to deal with the ‘black problem’ – complete with a racist speaker who calls Negroes sub-human. Scout is beyond stunned, as she remembers the time that Atticus defended a Negro against a rape charge, and won on appeal (another difference from Mockingbird) and she remembers that he always treated Negroes with respect, when most other people didn’t. And not only is Atticus there, but so is her boyfriend, whom she had been thinking of marrying.

Angry, shocked and confused, she goes to her Uncle Jack (Atticus’ brother) to tell him what she saw. Here she doesn’t find the comfort that she thought she would, and she leaves as angry as she arrived. She finally confronts Atticus, with accusations of racism and bigotry, and he doesn’t defend himself. This is probably the hardest part for a Mockingbird lover to read – Atticus speaks about the “black problem” and the “meddling” of the NAACP, and he constantly refers to the Negro community as “children” who need the guidance of white people. His only response to Scout’s accusations is “I love you.”

Still not knowing what to think, she returns to Uncle Jack, where he confronts her with the revelation that she must be her own conscience (the “watchman” of the title) and not rely on Atticus to be her moral compass. She must fully grow up and become her own person.

Overall, the book was not quite as good as Mockingbird (but what is?), though I still think it has merit on its own. The point of the book – to learn to be your own person – is relevant to everyone, and the issue of racism and bigotry is, sadly, still one we must confront. I think it serves as a great adjunct to its ‘big brother’ and I enjoyed my visit back to Maycomb, Alabama. And, speaking as a true fan of Mockingbird, I’m glad I read it and I don’t feel as if it has spoiled the image of the Atticus I know and love.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Doomsday Book

Doomsday BookDoomsday Book by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

This is another time travel book from Connie Willis. It takes place, chronologically, before the events of Blackout/All Clear, with a couple of the same characters. Like those books, we switch back and forth between the 'present' (Oxford University in our future) and a time period in the past, in this case, the Middle Ages. As with Blackout/All Clear, the historic period depicted reads like historic fiction, with great care taken in depicting the life and society of that era. I didn't find this book quite as compelling as Blackout/All Clear, but it was also much less confusing, with only a single character in the past that we had to follow. Nevertheless, it was a good story, with a bit of a mystery of sorts, and interesting characters.

The historic portion of the book follows a female historian, Kivrin, who goes back to the middle ages to observe how people lived. In the 'present', Professor Dunworthy - the top historian - is opposed to sending her, because he doesn't think enough research has been done to ensure the 'drop' is safe. But the head of the department is off on holiday, and the professor left in charge okays the drop - in fact, he is in charge of it and dismisses Dunworthy's fears. So Kivrin goes, and when she arrives she is very sick, with a high fever, and cannot remember the location of the drop, for when it's time for her to go back.

Meanwhile, back in Oxford, there is a flu epidemic and the drop technician who sent Kivrin falls deathly ill, but not before he reaches Dunworthy to say only "Something's wrong." Dunworthy has to deal with his colleagues falling ill, housing a team of American bell ringers on holiday to England (who are quarantined along with the rest of Oxford), desperately trying to find his missing department head, and fretting over Kivrin.

Kivrin is dealing with her own issues, once she recovers from her own illness. It seems that other people are also falling ill, but they have different symptoms than what Kivrin had, and she struggles to come to grips with what is actually happening. And, she still has to figure out some way of finding the drop site, so she can return to her own present time.

One of Willis' fortes is her ability to weave humor throughout the book, even in the midst of tense situations. She does so perfectly in this book. There are several characters at Oxford that provide some much needed comic relief, including the bell ringers, and Dunworthy's secretary (who is massively concerned about the lack of supplies, especially 'lavatory paper.')

There is no real comic relief in Kivrin's part of the story, but there are sympathetic characters that we come to know and love. There are also some not so sympathetic characters. All are very believable. Again, Willis does a masterful job of capturing the living conditions of the era, as well as the language difficulties - people back then didn't speak English as we know it (read Chaucer in the original, and you'll see how incomprehensible it is!) The descriptions of the home and the village reinforces my belief that I'm glad I didn't live then! Dark, cold and smelly pretty much sums it up.

Fans of time travel stories will enjoy this, and even fans of historical fiction should find the Kivrin-based story enthralling.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good

Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good (Mitford Years, #10)Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good by Jan Karon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this, the tenth book in the Mitford Series, we are back in Mitford, shortly after Fr. Tim & Cynthia return from their trip to Ireland (as related in In the Company of Others.) Tim is still trying to figure out how to be retired, Cynthia is working on a new book, and there are the usual struggles with the Barlowe kids. There is also, of course, the usual cast of colorful characters in the town of Mitford, with their own ups and downs. Reading one of these books is like a family reunion - there are the relatives you love, the ones you think are kind of quirky, and there are always those for whom 'drama' is a lifestyle. But they are all your family, and you wouldn't trade them for the world.

As usual for these books, there are several story arcs that weave their way through the narrative, some of them heartwarming and some of them heartbreaking. But the tone of the book is never depressing, even when dealing with some of the harder issues. There is a sense of 'everything will be all right' even when things don't work out. Since this is pretty much my philosophy in life, these books really resonate with me. And this one is no different. Despite the hard situations (Sammy, Hope's baby, Fr. Talbot), Tim & Cynthia face life with courage and hope. (No pun intended.)

The ending of this one makes it seem like the next book will be about Dooley and Lace, but there are still some loose threads that need to be addressed (Will Hope and her baby survive? Will Fr. Tim be able to publicly acknowledge his black half-brother?? Will Sammy ever fully come around?) which I really want to see wrapped up, so I hope we will still have more Fr. Tim books.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

A Fatal Grace

A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #2)A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars

This is the second book in the Inspector Gamache series. (The first was Still Life.) Like the first, this one involves a murder in the quaint Quebecois village of Three Pines, and Inspector Gamache once again finds himself observing the villagers in order to find the killer. I love his style of investigation, which is to watch and listen. This makes the ambiance of the book quite delightful, as we are treated to many little vignettes of him interacting with the residents of Three Pines - often over food, so be prepared to be hungry while reading this!

As with the first book, I had quite a bit of the mystery solved before Gamache did, which is one reason I didn't give this 4 stars. The mystery of 'B KLM' and the bag lady was very obvious to me. But the real joy of reading this series is the wonderful characters that populate Three Pines, not so much the mystery to be solved. The people seem very realistic - not always likable and often with not the purest of motives. Each person is distinct, and has his or her own foibles.

Another carry-over from the first book is Gamache's team. Once again, Gamache brings on a rookie, to try to help him become a better investigator - this time it's a local officer. Thankfully, he turns out to be a better choice than the nasty Nichol (from the first book), who returns to the team (assigned by Gamache's boss) and does her usual bit of in-fighting and muddying up the investigation. Nichol brings a bit of an edge to the overall tone of the book - she's not likable and is quite underhanded. We also learn a bit more about why Gamache is not universally liked by his superiors, which made me like him even more.

But the real star of the book, like its predecessor, is the village of Three Pines. It's a storybook locale, especially during Christmas, which is when this book takes place. But, like its populace, it can also be quite unpredictable and even deadly, with terrible snowstorms and frigid temperatures. Ms. Penny keeps it from being too perfect, with her quirky characters and their all-to-real issues.

I will definitely be reading the rest of this series!