Book Review – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee: A Look Into Our Soul

To Kill A MockingbirdIf ever there were a book I would consider voting for as the “Great American Novel”, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the one…the only one. It is hard for me to say that there is a one great anything. Times change, technology improves, and social views evolve. In short, we are never the same from one generation to the next and trying to pick anything that spans the gap and the differences as the greatest of all is difficult, if not a complete waste of time.

When it comes to literature, there are so many fine books and so many great writers that trying to narrow the selection to the “one great one” interferes with valuable reading time…generally. But then there is To Kill A Mockingbird.

Harper Lee’s story takes place in the small southern Alabama town and county of Maycomb during the depression era 1930’s. She paints a picture of the community and the people populating it through the eyes of Scout (Jean Louise Finch) the daughter of a prominent local attorney, Atticus Finch. As the book opens, Scout is preparing to begin her first year in grade school.

She and her brother Jem and friend Dill pass the summer doing the things children did before the age of video games and twenty-four hour television. They played. They entertained themselves. They went on adventures. They told stories about the frightening, recluse who lives on the corner. They were children.

They did all of this under the watchful eyes of Calpurnia, the black woman who is housekeeper and surrogate mother to the family. Scout describes her as “all angles and bone…with a hand as wide as a bed slat and twice as hard…”

In the Finch household, Cal is treated as an equal, a partner in the upbringing of the children and an indispensable member of the family. That is in the Finch household. Outside their small world, things are different in the community of Maycomb.

I find Calpurnia to be one of the most interesting of characters in the story. She is a strong and independent black woman who makes her way in the world dominated by whites. Scout is amazed on one occasion when visiting at Cal’s church that she spoke differently to other blacks, using their particular colloquialisms and dialect. It was very different from the way she spoke with Scout and Jem in the Finch home. Scout had no idea that Calpurnia lived this “double life” relating differently to the two cultures in Maycomb.

In short, racial prejudice reigns, as was common in the time. Blacks, Negroes as polite members of the community called African Americans in that day, are second-class citizens with a place in the universe of Maycomb that is always inferior to the whites. Even the most white-trashy, ignorant, slovenly of whites holds a place in the community superior to any of the blacks.

As a southerner who grew up in the south in the 1950s, I remember the “Jim Crowe” days. I went to schools that were not desegregated. I saw white only water fountains and restrooms. Black children were to be treated kindly, but we did not associate as a rule. They had their world. We had ours.

As Scout paints a picture of Maycomb through the experiences she shares with Jem and Dill, it begins as a sort of “Mayberry-esque”, idyllic memoir of her childhood. But events open her eyes to the underlying darkness of their culture. Maycomb is not the perfect little world she thought.

She is guided by her father, Atticus, through the twisting cultural maze she inhabits. He teaches her not to judge others, but to get in their shoes and walk around a while to see how the world looks from their perspective. Most importantly, never kill a mockingbird because all they do is sing and bring happiness without harming anyone else. Atticus is the rock in Scout’s world, giving her rope to explore and float about on the sea, but always there to anchor her safely.

Brother Jem (short for Jeremy) and friend Dill are her conscience and mentors in a way. Dill, rambunctious but sensitive, opens her eyes to things she had missed in their small community. Jem, sees and struggles with the contradictions around them…white people they have known all their lives as good people, doing things and saying things that they know to be wrong.

Through her innocence and confused effort to understand what is happening around her, we see that things are socially complicated. Whites harboring racial prejudice are not all evil as Scout describes their interactions. Instead, you get the feeling that they are ignorant, not seeing the contradictions in their lives, one instant treating a black member of the community in a courteous friendly manner, the next making sure they understand their place in the community…second class.

Some, however, are evil. The Ewells are the evilest of them all. Their conflict with Atticus and his defense of a black man, Tom Robinson, accused but innocent of a terrible crime leads to a chilling climax in the concluding chapters.

In the event that there is someone who has not read the book or seen the movie, I will not include any plot spoilers here. Just know that it is a gripping story with a conclusion that keeps you on the edge of your seat before Lee allows you to take a breath in the final chapter.

The prose is superb. The story is engaging and riveting. There are moments that will make you smile, others that will make you angry and some that might bring tears to your eyes.

Most of all, Harper Lee’s use of a little girl, Scout, to bring the narrative to life is masterful. It is not a children’s book, but through the eyes of a child, we see ourselves and the world around us. For me, that is why To Kill A Mockingbird is the great American novel. It spans the gap of generations, and through Scout’s eyes, looks into our soul.

Book Review – The Happy Spinster, by Karena Marie

Happy Spinster As I have said in the past, I read everything, and yes, on occasion I have been known to read erotica, but when I do it is only the best….and Karena Marie is the best.

Why is she the best? Have you ever noticed that many, most even, authors of erotica write as if they are scripting a scene from a C level porn video (Not that I would know anything about porn videos, of course).

Ms. Marie is not a porn writer, she is an author whose specialized niche is erotica. As in all of her books, the most erotic part of the book is the reality of her characters and the situations they encounter. There are no silly pretexts leading to the erotic scenes.(Nurses, pool boys, lonely housewives, etc.) Her characters are real, in real situations and that makes all the difference.

Sexuality is a part of life, a darned good part if you ask me. In the way that the most terrifying horror stories and thrillers have some basis in reality (Hitchcock’s Psycho, and The Rear Window come to mind), for me, the most tantalizing, scintillating erotica comes from the real world.

Karena Marie’s work is based in reality, and the reality increases the erotic tension of her stories. The Happy Spinster is no exception. Tawny is a believable character,  in control of her life and sexuality. Her encounters, while graphic, are believable , making them even more erotic.

Yes, I read everything. I like a good story and when I read erotica, I want it based in a lusty reality that I can envision.

In short, when I read erotica, I read Karena Marie.

Book Review – ‘From Manassas to Appomattox Memoirs of The Civil War in America’, by James Longstreet

longstreetThe war of northern aggression…the War between the States…the Civil War…call it what you will, the conflict that took more American lives than any other war and more than almost all of our other wars combined, changed the United States from a collection of, mostly independent, states into a nation. Without the Civil War, the history of this continent would have been vastly different.

For the record, I am a southerner, born in Georgia. I am not an apologist for slavery or the plantation society that made the south of the 19th century one of the richest places on earth at the expense of the terrible bondage of other human beings.

There is no doubt that many of the rank and file felt that they were fighting for freedom from the aggression of the Federal government, intent on preserving the union of states. Most southerners, in fact, did not own slaves. But, for those of my southern friends who try to justify the war on the basis of state’s rights, make no mistake about it…the states’ right they were trying to preserve was the right to own slaves.

Having said that, I have respect for my forebears who, misguided and wrong as they were, fought against overwhelming odds to secure what they mistakenly and ironically thought was “their freedom” to enslave others.

James Longstreet’s memoirs of the war is, perhaps, one of the finest and most detailed accounts of a great portion of the conflict that tore the country apart and resolved the issue of slavery that the Founding Fathers had put aside during the writing of the U.S. Constitution. Full of details and descriptive accounts of the movements of troops, battles and statistics Longstreet takes the reader backstage, into private meetings and strategy sessions with Lee and other generals as they planned campaigns and fought to stave off their eventual defeat.

His memoirs begin with his service in the Mexican War and subsequently in the west as a fairly junior officer. When war breaks out, he and a number of other officers, resign their commissions to return home and fight for their native state (country). During the course of the war, he rises to the rank of Lieutenant General, commanding the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee.

In addition to gaining a better understanding of the strategies and battlefield conflicts, Longstreet gives us a rare, eyewitness view of the personalities involved, from his perspective.

The memoirs occasionally take on a tone of self-justification that the reader may not understand without knowing in advance that at the conclusion of the war, there were those in the south who tried to blame Longstreet for the south’s loss. To many at the time, it was impossible that Robert E. Lee, who had been elevated to almost god-like status, could have made mistakes. Instead, some found a scapegoat in Longstreet, claiming that he had not carried out orders aggressively enough or had failed to carry them out at all. Longstreet goes to great lengths to provide letters and documentation, many from Lee himself, to prove that his actions were in strict accordance with orders and with the military protocols of the day. The truth was that many of his detractors were covering their own failings and culpability for the loss of the war.

In the end, the discussion of responsibility for the loss of the war is moot. The south was destined to lose, as long as slavery was an accepted institution authorized by the government and as long as the north had the will to fight on and incur the significant losses in men and material the south inflicted on them. Certainly, when Ulysses Grant took command of union forces, the war became a war of attrition. The south could not replace losses as quickly as the north. At that point, the war was lost, as Longstreet, forcefully points out.

Longstreet writes in the 19th century style, which may make it a bit tedious for some readers, but if you are student of the Civil war, it is necessary reading in order to gain a full understanding of the relationship between what was happening on the battlefield and the political atmosphere of the day.

Want to understand our nation today, and the struggle that continues to put the shame of slavery behind us? If so, ‘From Manassas to Appomattox Memoirs of The Civil War in America’, by James Longstreet is a must read.

Note – The Kindle version is free ( or was) but does not contain maps, charts etc. Paperback or hardcover editions provide more visual context with maps etc., to help the reader understand the action at times.

 

The Great American Novel? uhmmm…. well….Review of Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Review: ‘Moby Dick; or The Whale’ by Herman Melville

The Great American Novel? My high school literature teacher said that it was. I’m old enough now to disagree and say…No. A great American classic. Yes, I would go along with that, but the one great American novel…No.

I don’t believe in a one “Great” anything. There will always be someone or something different or better, including novels. Having said that, I did manage to work my way through Melville’s ponderous, and often tedious classic tale for the second time, and surely the last time, in my life.

So why is it a “Classic”? The story line, I suppose. Melville created a dark, ominous and intriguing character in Ahab, possessed by the need for revenge against the Great White Whale, Moby Dick. His obsession becomes possession, pitting him against pious Starbuck as innocent Ishmael looks on and records their battle for the souls of the crew.

In truth, there are some literary gems in the book as well. I find the opening chapters, Ishmael’s arrival in Nantucket, the inn, signing on as part of the crew of the Pequod, description of the Pequod’s two owners, Captains Peleg and Bildad and Ishmael’s interaction with his pagan friend Queequeg to be well written and enjoyable by any standard.

After that, the story bogs down in Melville’s tedious and usually incorrect study and classification of whales. Melville maintained, as did many of his day that whales were fish, not mammals, although he was not alone in that analysis at the time.

There are moments of interesting dialogue interaction among the characters, but in general, the parts of the book that everyone knows are the parts that we see in the various film adaptations of the story. There is a reason for this. Melville’s style in Moby Dick is tedious.

Even taking into account that he was a nineteenth century writer, his sentence structure and deeply dramatic descriptive passages can be tiring and sometimes confusing. I enjoy and prefer a number of other nineteenth century writers -Dickens, Cooper, Bierce, Crane, Poe, Emerson, Thoreau- and find their works enjoyable, even if written in the formalized style of the times. Frankly, Melville wears me out, at least in Moby Dick.

A word to all of my animal loving friends. Moby Dick is about whaling and whales are killed. Some of Melville’s best passages relate to the killing of the whales and the men who faced them in small boats on the open ocean. Lest we judge too harshly and impose our twenty-first century morality on those who lived before us, we should remember that the world was a very dark place before electricity. Whale oil made it a bit brighter. That’s not a defense, just reality.

I have no doubt that if Melville were to plop his manuscript down on the desk of a modern agent or publisher he would be rejected with only a form letter and no call back.

Even so, I give it four stars for a couple of reasons. The story is classic. As mentioned above, certain parts of the story and the conflict between good and evil, obsession and reality are masterful. The characterization of people who crewed ships powered by sail, and went out on the waters to face the great whales is honest and real. For its day, Moby Dick was, indeed, a classic.

Here’s a link to get it free on Amazon Kindle if you are courageous enough to give it a try, but no dishonor for passing on it. I’m just a devil for punishment.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B004TRXX7C/

Best – Glenn

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