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Books on the subject of family.

Review 118: Secret Lives of the First Ladies

Secret Lives of the First Ladies by Cormac O’Brien

This is a follow-up to O’Brien’s previous book, Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents, which, while a fascinating book, is a topic that has been covered many times. I have, in fact, two books on this topic, and they both illuminate the hidden idiosyncrasies, character flaws, shining moments of virtue and petty humanity of the 43 Commanders-in-Chief.

The "non-Dowdy" version of Abigail Adams

It was Abagail Adams who exhorted her husband to, “Remember the ladies,” and it seems that O’Brien has done just that. He’s given us a nice concise look at the women of the White House, and it’s a hell of a read.

It’s very easy to forget the First Ladies, and kind of pigeonhole them into the space that reads “President’s wife,” but to do so would be a great disservice to an amazing group of women.

A lot of people remember Hillary Clinton as being a political powerhouse, a kind of “co-President.” But she wasn’t the first, by any means. When Woodrow Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke in 1919, all access to him was controlled by his wife, Edith. She would let no-one in to see him, on the grounds that he was very ill and needed absolute peace and quiet. So, when someone needed something signed by the President, Edith would take it, close the door, and come back a few minutes later with the signed document. The question very quickly arose: who’s really the President?

Helen Taft is another forgotten First Lady firebrand. Without her motivation, William Howard Taft might have been perfectly happy to be a judge, but that wasn’t good enough for Helen. From her teenage years, she knew that she wanted to live in the White House, and she pushed her husband to make damn sure that she did. Once there, even her husband called her the “co-Presidentress” for the amount of involvement she had in the day-to-day decision making that went on. She was a woman of boundless energy, who was never willing to sit still. Oh, and if you like the cherry trees that bloom in DC every spring, you can thank Helen Taft for that. Women like these – Eleanor Roosevelt and Jocelyn Carter are part of their ranks as well – left indelible impressions on the country.

No-one messed with Anna Harrison. No one.

Not every First Lady was so ambitious, though. Some were more populist idols, adored by the public not for their works but for their personality. The most recent example would probably be Jacqueline Kennedy, who became a media icon almost as soon as her husband was elected. But there were others before her.

Dolley Madison threw the best parties in Washington, and was vastly more beloved than her dour and stolid husband, James. It was said that she had no enemies, and even the people who loathed her husband adored her. She stayed in the White House right up until the British showed up at its doorstep and managed to save a few precious items. It’s even said that the British commander, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, was more interested in capturing her than the executive mansion, and took her seat cushion from the dining room so that he could come away with something to remember her. Before he had the building torched, of course. After she left the White House and her husband passed away, it was customary for each new President to pay her a visit, gaining a kind of approval from the most loved woman in America.

Ida McKinley's hypnotic powers were well-known in Washington D.C. Only Theodore Roosevelt was able to break her spell....

Or take Frances Cleveland, wife of Grover. Her relationship with her husband would be considered scandalous in this day, and certainly was in hers – she was twenty-seven years younger than her husband, who had been her legal guardian when she was a child. Much to the nation’s surprise, he went from being “Uncle Cleve” to “Beloved Husband.” But that bit of creepiness didn’t stop the nation from loving her. Once in the White House, she became an early proponent of women’s accomplishments, willing to meet and talk to anyone, rich or poor. When Grover ran for re-election in 1892, Frances’ image was the one campaigners used, not his. And why shouldn’t they? In an age before byzantine copyright law, her name and image were already being used to sell all kinds of household goods. Ever eaten a Baby Ruth candy bar? It was named after the Clevelands’ daughter, who was, for her short life, the most popular baby in America.

And then there were the sad stories, the women whose lives in and out of the White House were full of misfortune. Jane Pierce is probably the saddest of these. She never wanted her husband to be President. Every step that he took forward seemed to result in pain for his family. Their first child died after a few days. When Franklin finally got out of national politics and opened up his own law firm, their second child died of typhus. With only one child left to them, Jane held on to him with a manic grip. His death – the only one in a train derailment a short time before Franklin’s inauguration, was the last straw. Jane became convinced that God had killed their children so that Franklin could have more time to devote to his Presidency, and spent her days writing letters to the dead boy, asking his forgiveness. She became known as the “shadow of the White House.”

Julia Dent Grant, who was the only person capable of keeping Ulysses from drinking himself to death.

No less tragic, of course, was the life of Mary Todd Lincoln, who is best known for being the wife of our first assassinated President. Even before that bad night at the theater, however, she had her share of sorrow. The animosity and hatred that was heaped upon her husband, the terrible strife of a civil war, and the untimely death of one of her sons turned a once vibrant, energetic woman into hysterical, morbid harridan. She held séances to try and talk to her deceased boy, harangued the White House staff, and almost had to be forcibly ejected once Andrew Johnson became the President. What’s worse, her own son, Robert, had her declared insane and had her committed. She won her freedom, but the animosity between mother and son after that was white-hot.

There’s so much more. The relationships these amazing women had with their husbands are also well-detailed, and also somewhat surprising. For all that Bill Clinton was a lecher, he was hardly the first.

Pat Nixon, who really must have loved Richard, though none of us knows why....

Hillary joined a group of long-suffering women who put up with blatant and repeated infidelities in and out of the White House. Some relationships were partnerships, like the Carters, the Hoovers and the Tafts. And some couples were just quietly devoted to each other, like the McKinleys and the Clevelands.

The First Lady is not an elected position. There’s nothing in the Constitution about her, what she can and cannot do, so the job, such as it is, is one that each wife makes for herself when her husband takes office. The effects that these women have had on this nation is immense, and should not be overlooked. So, if you’re interested in knowing more about our Presidents, you could do worse than to give a good look at the women who stood by them.

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“Well, Warren Harding, I have got you the Presidency. What are you going to do with it?”
-Florence Kling Harding

Cormac O’Brien on Wikipedia
Secret Lives of the First Ladies on Amazon.com
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Filed under american history, biography, Cormac O'Brien, family, history, nonfiction, presidential history, wives, women

Review 112: Ender’s Game

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

A little while after I started teaching literature, I thought about what kinds of books I’d like to do with students in the years to come. The texts I did last year – Fahrenheit 451, Things Fall Apart and a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories – are all well and good, but probably not what I would have chosen to teach. I wanted something that would speak to the students, that would engage with their lives, and which ideally was some good classic science fiction. So I went over to Ask Metafilter and asked them what science fiction they would recommend teaching to high school students studying English as a foreign language.

Child soldiers in science fiction are so cute....

Just about everyone mentioned Ender’s Game, and with good reason. It’s a good story, for one, and it addresses a lot of the issues that young people have to deal with that are often left out of the literature they have to read for English class. The adults in the book are like the adults in the students’ lives – slightly removed, seemingly omniscient, and not necessarily acting in their best interests, at least not as they see it. It deals with issues of bullying and isolation, of fitting in and standing out and accepting your place in the grander scheme of things. It’s about critical thinking and moral reflection, all wrapped up in the unending carnival that is youth.

In real life... not so much.

Ender Wiggin is, as our book begins, six years old, and he may be the last, best hope for humanity.

Ender comes from a strange place. In a near-totalitarian America, families are allowed to have only two children, in order to keep the population static. If a good reason exists, however, they might be allowed to have a third. That third is destined from the beginning to have a hard life, no matter what happens, especially if that third has been bred for a very specific reason.

Ender Wiggin is a Third. His parents had two children already – their son, Peter, and daughter, Valentine. Peter is a brilliant young sociopath, and Valentine is an equally brilliant pacifist. In ordinary times, either of them could have been an historical figure, but these were far from ordinary times. Earth is at war with an insectile alien race it has named the Formics (nicknamed “Buggers”), and has survived two invasions. Everyone knows there will be a third, and if they can’t fight it off then humanity will be scythed clean off the planet. The International Fleet needs a commander, one who has enough empathy to understand the enemy, but who also has the killer instinct to be able to wipe them out. Where Peter is too hard and Valentine is too soft, Ender Wiggin could be the one they’re looking for.

Almost makes me want to have my childhood stolen from me....

Young and frightened, Ender is taken off-planet to Battle School, where he and hundreds of other youths will take part in battle games to train them in how best to one day defeat the Buggers. While Ender knows that he’s been chosen, he doesn’t know why, and his experiences in the school lead him to wonder if being a Chosen One is really worth it. In game after game, Ender manages to prove his worth to the International Fleet by defying their expectations of what a battle commander should do. He is pushed to his limits and beyond by the International Fleet, whose motives and methods remain a mystery to him until he has accomplished their goal – one which he never even knew he was aiming for.

It’s a fun book, and a very quick read, and it’s one of those “I should have read this when I was a teenager” books. While I was never put in a position where my action could very possibly save the existence of all humanity, I – like every other teenager ever – had doubts about my place in the world. I saw the conflict between what I wanted for myself and what the adults in my life wanted for me. I was given responsibility that I didn’t want, and had to make a choice about whether or not I would live up to it. In other words, while the scale of Ender’s problems are much bigger than that of the average young person’s, they are essentially the same. I am fortunate in that Ender’s Game can work to explode a pervasive and not entirely accurate belief held by all teenagers everywhere, from the dawn of time until now: the belief that there is no one else in the world who understands what they are going through.

The big question then becomes, How do I teach this? What can I do to not only get my students to read it but to also understand its relationship to their own lives? However I manage to do it, that will hopefully reveal to them the whole point behind reading for pleasure: that you can look at a book or a story and say, “Yes – life is like this.” Not all of it, but you can find that moment, that point of any story that can connect what it is saying to your own life, and thereby learn something from it.

There are also a whole host of other issues that can be brought up with this novel, not the least of which is the systematic indoctrination of young people by their educational system. Perhaps a bit self-defeating, but the anti-authoritarian in me would be vastly entertained if I could somehow encourage these kids to look suspiciously upon the very foundation of the system in which they were currently residing. There is also the greater issues of how a society teaches its children, and the limited value of truth. We tell kids that “honesty is the best policy,” but this book blows that axiom away. If they had told Ender the truth about what he was doing and why, he would have refused, and Earth would likely have been wiped out. In the same way, how do we – adults, and especially teachers – lie to young people in order to achieve a greater goal? What value, then, do these lies have, and are they worth telling?

Even Peter would be helpless against the LOLCats.

We can explore redemption and atonement through Ender’s attempt to make up for the things he has done. Even more interestingly, we can look at Card’s prediction of how the internet would shape political discourse and how citizens can easily be manipulated. Peter and Valentine put on electronic personae through which they gain immense power despite their youth, using their own innate genius to spark debate on the topics that will achieve their own goals.

Outside the text, too, there is an excellent opportunity to discuss the relationship between a work and its author. While Ender’s Game is a brilliant story that is so well-written that it is recommended reading by both Quakers and the U.S. Marine Corps, its author holds some rather despicable views that don’t seem to mesh with the message he has put into his book. I speak here of Card’s public denouncement of gay marriage, including accepting a position on the board of directors of the National Organization for Marriage. This group has made many attempts to block the spread of queer civil rights in the U.S., and it disturbs me that an author whose work I respect is spearheading the effort.

FINE. I didn't want to marry you anyway....

What, then, is my responsibility as a reader? Should I never read his work again, lest it be seen as a show of support for his politics? Can I even read him fairly from now on, or will I always be looking for that anti-gay undercurrent, perhaps where there is none? Or should I simply ignore the author and enjoy the work? There are a great many authors and artists who are in the same position as Card, and it is a worthwhile discussion to have.

There are so many topics to mine from this book that I had to stop myself from time to time and remember to enjoy it, rather than make mental lesson plans.

In any case, if you haven’t read Ender’s Game, I recommend that you do. If you have a young person in your life, see to it that he or she has a chance to read it as well. If you’re really lucky, it’ll foster a lifelong love of reading. If not, at least they might walk away with the understanding that their problems are pretty universal, and that, on the whole, things could be a whole lot worse.

They could be Ender Wiggin.

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“It was just him and me. He fought with honor. If it weren’t for his honor, he and the others would have beaten me together. They might have killed me, then. His sense of honor saved my life. I didn’t fight with honor… I fought to win.”
– Ender Wiggin, Ender’s Game”

Ender’s Game on Wikipedia
Orson Scott Card on Wikipedia
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I couldn't NOT put it in....

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Filed under brothers, childhood, children, coming of age, ethics, family, friendship, military, morality, Orson Scott Card, science fiction, sisters, teenagers, truth, war, young adult

Review 111 – Wolves of the Calla

Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King

Okay, before we get into this book, let me take a little survey: Have you ever seen The Seven Samurai? How about The Magnificent Seven?

The Three Amigos? GalaxyQuest?

If you’ve seen these movies, and any number of stories like them, then you know the basic outline of this book. Say it along with me now….

'We deal in lead, friend.' - Vin

Calla Bryn Sturgis, a small farming village on the far end of the world, is notable for a few things. Its rice, its peaceful people, and its abundance of twins. The farmers of Calla Bryn Sturgis want nothing more than to live their lives in peace, but their idyllic existence is threatened by invaders from the east.

They come from the evil town of Thunderclap, once a generation – the Wolves. Armored and cloaked in green, riding identical deathless gray steeds and armed with terrible weapons, the Wolves come to Calla Bryn Strugis to steal one child from every set of twins. They take them to their dark city, and when the children come back, they come back as damaged goods. “Roont,” the Calla-folk call them, and it’s an apt word for they are ruined indeed. Over the years, these children, whose minds have lost all of their intelligence and humanity, grow into pain-wracked giants, and then die horrible deaths years before their time.

No one knows why the Wolves come, and no one has ever even considered trying to stop them. Until now.

Word has come that Roland and his ka-tet – Eddie, Susannah, Jake and Oy – are in the area, and if anyone can stop the Wolves, it would be Gunslingers. If the people of Calla Bryn Sturgis can convince them to help, and are willing to fight alongside them, then they have a chance to repel the Wolves once and for all.

If only it were that simple.

'Once more, we have survived.' - Kambei Shimada

Interlaced with this this pretty straightforward tale is, of course, the larger story of the quest for the Dark Tower and the fight against those for whom the Wolves are merely agents. A new warrior in this fight is Father Donald Callahan, whom we last met way back in ‘Salem’s Lot as a broken and ruined priest, damned by a vampire king and sent out into the world to live or die as he pleased. Through his damnation, Callahan has found himself able to see things he shouldn’t be able to see, including the various classes of vampires and the Low Men – agents of the Crimson King who serve His interests in the various levels of the Tower. Callahan discovers a knack for traveling through the Americas along secret highways. In his ramblings from coast to coast, looking for peace – or death – he slips from one version of America to another, never knowing how or why.

In the end, he brings himself to the attention of forces far greater than himself. It leads to his death and reappearance in Roland’s world, but more importantly it puts him in possession of an object of great power and even greater peril – Black Thirteen, an inky sphere that could be the black eye of the Crimson King himself, and which has the power to send its bearer through a door to any point in space or time.

Roland and the others are going to need that door, too. While they’re busy planning their battle against the Wolves in Calla Bryn Sturgis, they have another fight to win, in another world. In New York of 1977, there is a vacant lot, and in this lot is a rose. The rose must be protected at all costs, for it is the other end of the Tower – one axis upon which all the worlds turn. This lot is in great peril, and it is imperative that our heroes keep it safe. By whatever means necessary.

'Oh GREAT!!! REAL bullets!!!' - Lucky Day

It’s a really good tale, and one that is actually better than I remember it being. The first volume after King’s near-fatal accident, it’s all put together very neatly, while getting us set up for events to come, even if some of them aren’t entirely clear, or seem a little random at first glimpse. For example, Roland discovers that he’s beset by the Dread Foe Arthritis. As it is now, it’s making him kind of achy, but should it spread to his precious shooting hand, then it’s all over for him. Why King decided to afflict Roland with something as mundane as arthritis isn’t entirely clear (although to be fair, Roland is technically over a thousand years old and could be considered due for a few of the ravages of old age).

Perhaps it is a sign of Roland’s encroaching humanity. In The Gunslinger, mention is made of his ability to detach himself from his body somewhat so as not to feel thirst. In that book, he is largely mechanical, only showing any kind of real emotion when he finally faces the Man in Black. Over the course of the series, Roland has become more tuned into what it means to be a person and to feel, y’know, feelings and things. This gives him the bond with his ka-tet that he needs, but it also comes with a price. Perhaps the arthritis is the first price he must pay for allowing himself to feel.

Mention must also be made here of poor, beleaguered Susannah. I mean Detta. Odetta. No, wait – Mia.

'Never give up, never surrender!' - Jason Nesmith

Out of the seething cauldron that is this poor woman’s mind, a new personality has emerged. Mia, Daughter of None is still something of a mystery to us. As far as we know, she has only one ambition – to protect the child growing in her belly. This child was not fathered by Eddie Dean, Susannah’s beloved husband, but by the cold and unnatural demon that Susannah held at bay while the two men pulled Jake from his world to theirs. Growing within her now is something horrible, something that Mia was born to protect, even at the expense of the body she inhabits. Right now, that’s all that she is, and her greater purpose is yet to be revealed.

King does a pretty good job of juggling the various plot lines in this book, making sure that we aren’t left hanging for too long on any of them. Of course, they feed into each other as well – Father Callahan’s tale interweaves itself with the story of New York in ’77, and its ultimate conclusion allows the plot to progress through this book and into the next. I actually enjoyed Callahan’s story a great deal, and thought it would have made for a wonderful stand-alone short story. Not a novel, as there’s a whole lot of “I walked around for a few years and did manual labor” in there, but the story that he told to Roland and the others would have stood on its own quite nicely. He’s an interesting, complex character, and I look forward to seeing what awful thing happens to him next.

What’s more, there’s a wonderful meta-fictional element to this book as well, and it introduces that idea of a story that is aware of itself being a story. For example, in the beginning of the book, Eddie notices that time has started up again. While it is true that time, like everything else in this world, is unreliable, I found it interesting that he should make mention of it at that point, right when their story starts up again after a break (from our point of view) of six years. From the characters’ points of view, on the other hand, the time between books is indeterminate, but Eddie notices that they don’t seem to really do anything in that intervening time. It made me wonder about what happens to fictional characters when they’re not being written about, a train of thought for which I am not adequately medicated.

Think about it....

More importantly, the impact of real-world fiction becomes painfully obvious in this book. For one, Stephen King is established as an as-yet-unseen character, which comes right on the heels of a very serious existential crisis for Father Callahan. The Wolves themselves are explicitly noted to be rip-offs – er, homages to fictions ranging from Marvel Comics to Harry Potter. Whatever else Roland’s world is, it has a very close connection with the fiction of our world, and that connection may offer important clues as to the true nature of their quest.

So, what purpose does this book serve in the greater series? Well, there are many out there who see Roland’s quest as being not so much for the Dark Tower as for redemption. After the loss of his love, his friends, his family and his homeland, Roland made himself into something that was only technically human. Over these books, he has had to learn how to re-connect, first with individuals, then as a small group, and now with a community. In this book, Roland has to come to grips with Calla Bryn Sturgis not just as a hired gun but as their leader, if only temporarily. He has to see himself as part of a greater whole, thus becoming – as I mentioned above – more human. Each book forces him to be more and more connected with those around him. The only question is if he can hold on to this new humanity before his quest for the Tower destroys him.

All in all, a good read, which moves ever-so-smoothly into the next book….

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“First come smiles, then comes lies. Last is gunfire.”
– Roland, Wolves of the Calla
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Filed under adventure, Dark Tower, death, fantasy, fathers, friendship, horror, meta-fiction, murder, quest, revenge, robots, sons, Stephen King, survival

Review 75: The Eyes of the Dragon


The Eyes of the Dragon by Stephen King

Sometimes you are surprised.

Stephen King has long been associated with horror, and deservedly so. His career began with works like Carrie, Christine, Firestarter, The Shining and so on, all designed to scare the everlovin’ out of any poor soul who picked up the book – and usually succeeding. What’s more, the books often became movies, thereby allowing that segment of the population who doesn’t read much to be terrified.

So for years, King has been called one of the scariest authors alive. I’ve seen cartoons attempting to portray Halloween at his house, bedtime stories for his children, and the horrible, dark confines of his imagination. The mind of King is where the terrors dwell, most think – the monsters, demons and vampires.

And Flagg.

But this book is where King really strayed from the image that had been built for him in popular culture. This story isn’t a horror story, no matter what the quotes on the back of the book imply. This is a fantasy story. It has some tense and scary moments, yes, but it’s a fantasy through and through, built with some of the most well-worn elements of fantasy storytelling. We have all of the necessary elements before us:

The King – King Roland (no relation to the Roland of the Dark Tower Series, as far as we know), the fairly capable and mostly well-liked king of Delain. He has served his kingdom well, and grown old and, if not wise, then at least experienced. He’s not the best king, nor is he the worst. The most that can be said of him is that he tried his best and hoped that his son would do a better job than he had. Of course there is also….

The Queen – Queen Sasha, beloved of Roland. She was the light of his life, and the guiding hand on his shoulder. Many in Delain agree that Roland could have been a despot were it not for his beautiful and kindly wife whose compassion and good sense would eventually save the kingdom. She bore two sons, the first of whom was…

The Prince – Prince Peter, the shining star of the family. Wise beyond his years, strong and fair, everyone loved Peter. He won awards and friends, and was all in all a good son, one that any father would be proud to have. Most people, knowing that Peter would be the next king, felt that the future of Delain was safe. Peter had a brother….

The Second Son – Prince Thomas, forever standing in his brother’s shadow. Not only was Peter older and more capable than Thomas in every way, there was an additional burden on his young mind. With the birth of Thomas, his mother, Queen Sasha, had died. And so it was that Thomas grew up the guilty one. He sought the love of his father, who thought the sun rose and set on Peter. And while Peter made every effort to extend the hand of brotherly love, Thomas felt only resentment and jealousy. Little did he know that his destiny had been guided from the beginning by….

The Evil Wizard – Flagg, that undying demon whose black and poisonous presence had been in Delain every time the country fell into ruin, and who intended to do it once again. A master of spells, potions and poisons, to speak his name was to invite horror, pain and death. He stood in Roland’s shadow, quietly twisting his mind over the years. His ultimate goal was a millennium of darkness for Delain, and he knew just how to bring it about. The only thing standing in his way is the possibility that Peter could be king.

I’m not sure whose story this is, which makes it all the more interesting. On one hand, it’s Flagg’s story. In his dark desire to see Delain in chaos, he manipulates the King and his family to bring the kingdom to the brink. A little patient planning, some good preparation, and Flagg manages to frame Peter for the vicious murder of his father, the King.

Suddenly the Golden Boy is a despised murderer, patricide and regicide, and sentenced to spend the rest of his natural life imprisoned at the top of Delain’s tallest tower, the Needle.

But, then, maybe it’s Peter’s story. He is caught, an innocent victim in this web spun by Flagg. But he was well-taught by his father and mother. His father taught him to be strong and kingly, his mother to be kind and human. The combination made him into something that Flagg could not stand – a good person and potentially a good leader.

Even in his lofty prison, Peter isn’t willing to give up. With some clear thinking and a lot of patience, he manages to work out a plan to escape. Because he is a good man, he has friends willing to help him, to do favors, who will perhaps help clear his name and end the less-than-spectacular reign of his brother, Thomas.

Then again, maybe it really is Thomas’ story. The narrator (the presence of whom gives this story a wonderful fairy tale feeling) takes pains to show us that, while Thomas is a sad, confused, and sometimes cruel man, he’s not really bad.

Full of fear and self-loathing, Thomas is the perfect tool for Flagg. Under his dominion, the kingdom starts to slide towards the chaos that Flagg so richly desires. Thomas is a good example of what happens when a weak person, guided by circumstance and cruel greed, takes power. But even Thomas is not irredeemable – despite the mess of his life, he possesses a secret that could ruin everything Flagg has tried so hard to create.

As with so many of King’s really good books, we are presented with not only an excellent cast of characters, but also excellent storytelling. In many of his author’s notes, he refers to us as Steadfast Reader. He never forgets who has given him his fame and his reputation – the readers. By using a storyteller to present this tale, he acknowledges and speaks to us as though he were telling us the story directly.

Much like it can be a story about many people, it’s a story of many messages. It’s about hubris and the belief that one cannot possibly fail in one’s Evil Plans (happens to me all the time). It’s about honor and loyalty and standing by what’s right, even when the whole world is against you. It’s about being able to redeem yourself, no matter what horrible things you might have done in the past. It’s a story about love and hope and faith, one that never gets old no matter how many times you read it.

I’m not sure how many times I’ve read this book by now, and I fully expect I’ll read it again in the future. If you’re not a King fan and you’re not too keen on reading about family dogs that turn into killing machines, insane telekinetic teenage girls, or possessed Plymouths that steal the souls of their owners, then this is the book you want to read.

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“In those years, Thomas discovered two things: guilt and secrets, like murdered bones, never rest easy; but the knowledge of all three can be lived with.”
– Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
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Filed under adventure, brothers, dragons, family, fantasy, fathers, friendship, murder, revenge, sons, Stephen King, wizardry

Review 67: The Graveyard Book


The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

As I’ve said before, Neil Gaiman is one of the very few authors whose books I’ll pick up without reservation. I can always be sure that I’ll enjoy what he does, so I always look forward to new work. I am happy to say that this book is no exception. It’s even made news recently – it won the Newberry Medal for Children’s Literature, a very prestigious American literary prize. So good for you, Neil….

It’s a well-deserved medal for a book that follows in the footsteps of Kipling’s The Jungle Book. It’s a book that can appeal to young readers and adults alike, without being condescending or patronizing, something that many writers for young readers have trouble with. As can usually be expected from books aimed at young readers, it’s heavy on the themes of growing up, learning your place in the world, and eventually deciding who you want to be. The means by which this book does it, however, are slightly different.

The first line was enough to get me hooked: “There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”

Ooo. Shivers.

The story begins with a gruesome triple murder, as all good childrens’ books do. But the intended fourth victim, a young toddler, manages to escape the bloodbath and wander, quite innocently, up to the graveyard on the hill. There, amidst tombs and graves that had lain there for centuries, he is saved from certain death and given protection by a most unusual new family: ghosts.

The boy, rechristened as Nobody Owens, or Bod for short, is raised by the spirits of this tiny world through the intercession of Silas, a mysterious individual who straddles the boundary between the living and the dead. As far as places to grow up go, it’s not a bad one. He does end up learning some rather old-fashioned English from those who died half a millennium ago, and wanders around in a grey winding sheet instead of proper clothing, but he is safe there. He has the Freedom of the Graveyard, a gift from the ghosts that allows him the protection that only the dead can offer.

As Bod grows up, he learns the tricks that ghosts can do – how to fade from sight, or to rouse fear and terror, how to walk through walls. But he also learns that he’s very different from his adopted community. Their lives are ended, their stories are done. He is alive, and as he gets older, that difference becomes more and more vivid. While he may live among the ghosts, he is not one himself. Not yet, anyway.

But there are those who would like to make him one. The mysterious murderer who destroyed Bod’s family, a man named Jack, is one of many wicked men who would see Bod dead. He may have lost the boy once, but he and his confederates are determined to find him again. There is a prophecy, you see, and they mean to see that it’s stopped. And once Bod learns about his family’s fate, he becomes equally determined to see justice done.

The book is really good. It’s a bit simple for an adult audience, and there were a few plot points that I was able to predict pretty quickly. But the book isn’t really aimed at us – it’s aimed at the younger reader, around eleven or twelve years old. Such readers don’t quite have the experience to know that, say, when a new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through the book, that’s a character to be wary of. It’s the kind of book that’s best read to people,and that’s how Gaiman promoted the release of the book, by doing public readings of it.

As I said before, it dwells on the theme that most books of this genre do: growing up. As Bod gets older, as he starts to feel the pull of the outside world, he understands that he can’t stay with his family forever. The dead don’t grow, they don’t change, but young people do – often very radically in a very short span of time. While it is perhaps a stretch to compare parents to dead people, there is certainly a vague parallel to be drawn here. As adults, we don’t change very much, at least not unless we have to. We’re set in our ways and our beliefs. They’ve served us well, and if there’s no reason to go mucking about with them, then they’re better off left alone. Kids, however, are malleable and ever-changing. They go through phases and changes and switch from adorable little tyke to abominable little teenager with alacrity. Eventually, they have to discover who they are, and the only way to do that is to leave.

The nice thing about Bod is that, while he does get into trouble and disobey his guardians, he is, on the whole, obedient and self-aware. He understands that his freedom – indeed his very life – is a gift to him from the graveyard. The ghosts there taught him what he knows, and made sure that he lived through the traumas of childhood and the machinations of men who wanted him dead. He appreciates what his guardians have done for him, even as he prepares to leave them. It’s a good message, slipped in with the general motif of the challenges of growing up, and one that I hope young readers absorb.

It’s easy for a young person to look at the adults in his or her life and think of them like the ghosts in this book. Yes, their lives aren’t very exciting anymore, and yes they tend to be overprotective and kind of a pain in the ass. But it’s for a good reason, most of the time. Thanks to them, you have all the possibilities of life laid before you. And it won’t be easy, living. But you should do it while you have the chance….

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“You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
– Mother Slaughter, The Graveyard Book
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Filed under children, coming of age, death, family, fantasy, friendship, ghosts, identity, murder, Neil Gaiman, young adult

Review 45: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

What is there to say about this book that hasn’t already been said? I mean, it’s one of the most critically acclaimed novels of the last fifty years, and is considered a classic of American literature. It’s required reading in nearly every high school in America – and at the same time it’s a regular guest on the American Library Association’s “Most Banned Books” list.

A lot of minds, many better than mine, have turned their thoughts to this book, and have no doubt picked every last shred of meaning, metaphor and symbolism from it. So what’s left for me to say about it? Sure, I can talk about how it’s a classic coming-of-age tale, about how Scout Finch, a young girl living in a small, insular town in Alabama, saw her world shaped and changed by the goodness and integrity of her father, Atticus. We can look at the family dynamics of the story – a family without a mother, save for the surrogate matriarch roles played first by the maid, Calpurnia, and then by Aunt Alexandria, Atticus’ sister. We can analyze how the power in that family structure changes and shifts, and ultimately rests in Atticus’ capable hands.

Or we can look at the elements of symbolism in the book – the mad dog, foreshadowing the vicious Bob Ewell, whose hatred for Atticus costs him his life. Or the title, as we wonder throughout the book, “Who is the mockingbird?” Is it a person, even, or could it be something as intangible as Innocence? Of course we find out, in the end – it’s the shut-in neighbor, Boo Radley, who must be protected as a mockingbird would be.

And who is Boo, anyway? What does he mean to the America of the 1930s, in which the book was set? Or the 1960s, in which it was published? Or the Aughts, in which I’m reading it? Is he a metaphor for America at that time, too consumed by its troubles to venture out, yet willing to protect those it holds dear, an intentional foreshadowing of the Great War that lays only six years in the future? Or is he the ghostly antithesis of Atticus Finch, a man who does the right thing only once in his life, rather than every day?

It’s also a defense of the American legal system. The trial of Tom Robinson is hopelessly unwinnable, but Atticus knows that it is something to be marveled at that Tom even gets a chance. A thin chance, yes, but in so many other times and places, Tom would have just been killed right on the scene of his alleged crime, and no one would have done anything about it. But in America, the courts are the great levelers. Even a black man, who in that time and that place was a citizen only on sufferance, can still have his day in court. He had very little chance, but with a lawyer like Atticus, who believes wholeheartedly in the purity of Law, he had a better chance than most. “Our courts have their faults,” he says, “as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levellers, and in our courts all men are created equal.” Without this system, however, even a man of Atticus’ talents and integrity wouldn’t have been able to help Tom Robinson.

I guarantee – someone, somewhere has thought about all of these things, and has probably written more about them than I ever could. And with more passion and skill. So I’ll just write about what the book made me think, and hope I can put that into words that sound good to all of you.

I want to be Atticus Finch when I grow up.

As much as the book may be narrated by Scout, and Boo Radley haunts it like an unquiet ghost, the story is about Atticus – a good man in a small town who tries to do everything he can to make his part of the world a better place.

The central event of this book, which echoes from first page to last, is a trial in which Atticus has to do an impossible thing – defend a black man from charges of raping a white woman. By taking this case, Atticus knowingly risks his reputation, his safety and his life, as well as those of his family. It’s hard for us here, in an age when the United States has a black President, to truly understand just how racially broken the country used to be. Not that everything is hunky-dory now – anyone who claims that the election of President Obama somehow solved the problem of race in America has a lot of re-thinking to do. But it was so much worse back then.

Atticus Finch is a man with an unshakable moral compass, who knows the difference between right and wrong and how to make sure he does the right thing. He knows that he is a role model not only for his children, but for the people of his town – in several parts of the book, he’s likened to a savior.”We are so rarely called on to be Christians,” says Miss Maudie, a rather progressive neighbor of the Finch’s, “but when we are, we’ve got men like Atticus to go for us.” He exhorts his children to spend time in another’s skin, to really look at the world from their perspective, in order to understand why they do what they do. He values intellect and reason over emotion and fighting, but is not afraid to take action when it’s absolutely necessary. He bears an immense responsibility on his shoulders, not only for the people of his town – black and white – but for his family, that he may raise his children to be good people as well.

Probably my favorite Atticus moment in the book comes in chapter eleven, with the redemption of Mrs. Dubose. A cantankerous old woman living down the street, Mrs. Dubose is a terror to Scout and her brother Jem. She eventually provokes Jem into a fury, whereupon he destroys her camellias, the punishment for which is that Jem must go to her home and read to her for a month. He does, as he’s Atticus’ son and therefore keeps his promises, but it’s not a pleasant duty. She drifts off into nearly comatose states by the end of their reading sessions, which last longer and longer as what Jem believes must be further punishment for his crime.

It is only later, after Mrs. Dubose dies, that Atticus reveals the real reason Jem was sent to go read to her – so he could help her overcome a crippling morphine addiction before she died. She wanted to die free of her burden, and Atticus wanted his son to see what it means to truly be brave. It was important that Jem understand, before the trial got into full swing, that, “It’s when you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Mrs. Dubose won, thanks to Atticus, and his son learned what it means to be brave.

The only real criticism I can think of with regards to Atticus Finch is that he’s too good. It’s hard to find a flaw in the man, other than his nearly unbending insistence on doing the right thing, even if it should put his family in danger. He’s kind of like Superman in that regard – his greatest flaw is his unwillingness to compromise on what is right, even if it hurts those close to him.

Of all the flaws one could have, though, that’s not too bad.

I am reminded that one of the greatest questions of philosophy is “Why should we do good?” Atticus knows why. Because it’s the only thing he can do and still live with himself. He doesn’t need to justify what he does to anyone else. He doesn’t need to convince anyone that he’s doing what is right. He only needs to convince himself. As long has he can look his children in the eyes, he knows that what he’s doing is right, and that’s all he requires. And perhaps he is an idealist, yes. But he’s an idealist who lives up to his ideals, who lives through those ideals every day. He knows that what he does won’t necessarily change his little town, much less the world, but he does it anyway. Because that’s what living a good and honest life means, and that’s what I learned from Atticus Finch.

What surprises me, honestly, is that this is the only book Harper Lee’s written. It’s so rich, so gripping, just so damn good that it’s hard to believe she never had another story she wanted to tell. Her entry in Wikipedia says that she’s written some essays and started a few novels, but never finished them, which saddens me. But then, perhaps some writers have countless stories in them – some of them great, some of them not – and others just have one. And in Lee’s case, it was a humdinger.

If you’re going into high school and you’re reading this – you will be required to read this book at some point. I know how irritating it is to be forced to read a book, and I know that anything an adult tells you is good must automatically suck. Nevertheless, I’m going to ask you to trust me on this one and give it a fair shake. There’s a lot to learn from this book, and it’ll stick with you for years.

If you haven’t read this one since high school – read it again. It’s far better than you remember.

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“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
– Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird
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To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikipedia
Harper Lee on Wikipedia
To Kill a Mockingbird on Amazon.com
To Kill a Mockingbird on Wikiquote
To Kill a Mockingbird at the Encyclopedia of Alabama
The Boo Radleys on Wikipedia

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Filed under children, classics, coming of age, family, fathers, fiction, Harper Lee, made into movies, murder, racism