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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

Review 23: American Gods


American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I remember waiting a long time for this book. Neil documented the process of writing it on his blog, so every few days I would get a little glimpse at what he was doing – and it drove me nuts. Living in Japan, I can never be sure when my favorite entertainment will make it over here. Movies and books can take months to get from the US to Japan, and while I’m waiting not-so-patiently, all my friends at home have just devoured it and are in the process of raving about how awesome it is. Oh, sure, the hyper-sellers like Harry Potter might have a worldwide release, but Neil wasn’t exactly a mainstream superstar when this was written.

So yes, one of my main memories associated with this book is frustration. Fortunately, when I picked up the book during a trip home back in 2001, my frustration was erased and replaced with profound satisfaction.

American Gods was one of Gaiman’s first full-length novels, though I may be wrong about that. It was not, of course, his debut – he had made his name a household word in fantasy-reading households by penning the epic comic book series Sandman, in which he proved that he was able to marry huge metaphysical themes to personal narrative. He could make the dissolution of worlds pale beside a broken heart and make you believe that even the simplest of life had vast meaning.

In other words, this man has some serious writing chops.

As the title implies, in this book Gaiman takes on the gods, and asks a very interesting – and important – question: what happened to the gods that came to America? I’m talking about the Old Gods, the gods that had been living in the hearts and minds of people for thousands of years. Leprechauns and dryads, three-in-one forces of fate and representations of the seasons. Easter and Odin, Bast and Anubis, gods of once-great nations and unknown villages. As their people came to America over the millennia, they brought their gods with them.

But as the people stayed in America, they changed. They grew. And the gods discovered that America is not a good place for them.

Now the old gods are small and unworshipped, save by a few tiny, dwindling pockets of their old culture. What’s more, new gods are rising, gods of media and internet, highway and television and government. And, as has been said in countless westerns and cowboy movies, there isn’t room for all of them. There will be a reckoning, and a man named Shadow is in the middle of it.

Shadow is a convict, nearly at the end of his time in prison. He wants nothing more than to get out of prison and rejoin his wife. He gets one of those wishes when he is released early. Unfortunately, he is released early to attend his wife’s funeral.

Without friends or family, Shadow is aimless and alone. It is in this condition that he meets the enigmatic Wednesday, a man who seems to know Shadow and his situation, far better than any stranger should. He offers Shadow a job – to assist Wednesday when he needs it, protect him if he has to, and sit a vigil for him if he dies. With nothing to lose, Shadow accepts the deal. In so doing, he finds himself facing a war of gods that he never knew existed.

It’s a great story, on many levels. In one sense, it’s a love letter to America. Shadow’s journey takes him through small towns that have yet to be subsumed into the ever-devouring maw of the modern American monoculture – from roadside attractions to tiny motels to strange lakeside communities, the unacknowledged weirdness of America is put on display here for all to see. As is its history, in the form of flashbacks to the journeys that people made from their homelands to this land, voluntary or not. The book reminds us that there is a complexity to not only American history, but also to American culture, which gets lost in the ubiquity of McDonald’s and Starbucks.

The metaphysical angle of this book is also something to give you pause. It asks the questions about what gods are, how they’re born and how they die. Most importantly – how they flourish or wither, and why. It is said over and over again that America is a bad place for gods, although it’s not clearly explained why. Perhaps something to do with its geography – a vast, variable landscape that’s too big for small tribal gods to get a hold of. Perhaps it’s the people, brought from all over the world, who can’t help but wonder what other cultures can offer them. Perhaps it’s just the nature of its people – always moving, independently-minded. The old gods, who were gods of small nations and regions, simply didn’t have the power or flexibility to stay on.

Which really makes us wonder, how did capital-g God manage to get a foothold? As one of the characters notes, Jesus has done really well over here. Perhaps because the God of Abraham can be all things to all people – a god of vengeance and justice, a god of mercy and love, a creator, a destroyer, a personal friend or a distant observer. There is something to be said for non-specialization, I suppose….

This book is a journey, and it’s a long and complicated one at that. But it’s enjoyable and personal. Gaiman writes with great empathy, so that the reader may even understand the gods themselves, as reduced and attenuated as they may have become. Though Shadow is not exactly the protagonist of the story – he spends most of the book doing what he is told to do, only taking initiative on his own towards the end, he is observant. Through his eyes, we learn more about America. Its triumphs, its flaws and its potential all become a little bit clearer, and upon finishing the book, those of us from that strange, turbulent land can perhaps appreciate it a bit more.

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“This is the only country in the world that worries about what it is.”
– Wednesday, American Gods
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Neil Gaiman on Wikipedia
Neil Gaiman’s homepage
American Gods on Wikipedia
American Gods on Amazon.com
Neil Gaiman on Twitter

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Filed under death, fantasy, gods, murder, Neil Gaiman, religion, The United States

Review 08: Watchmen

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

What with the movie on its way, I thought it’d be time to go through the book again. And, as always, it was a great pleasure to read.

This is a graphic novel that has an immense impact on comics history. It’s considered to be one of the most important works in the genre in, well, ever. Read any analysis of Watchmen and you’ll read that it revolutionized comics. It changed everything, they say.

They’re right.

Before I get to the actual story – and it’s a formidable story – I want to address the immense technical achievement that is evident in this book. Look at any panel, any page and you can spend a long time just admiring the artistry that has emerged from the Moore-Gibbons partnership. The words and the images fit together like the finest puzzle pieces, each one reinforcing and supporting the others. There are no unnecessary words, and there are no unnecessary pictures.

Goddamn it’s good. It’s a fantastic piece of work.

Just as much as the technical aspects of the book are a marvel, so is the story. It was written in – and set in – the mid-80s. It took the core genre of the comics industry, superheroes, and bent them to reality’s will. These were not the iconic, ageless figures of Batman and Superman, people whose hearts and intentions were pure and who never aged. The superheroes – or “costumed adventurers,” more appropriately – were very, very human. Not only did they age, but they made mistakes. They lied, they failed, they gave up. They were, with one notable exception, human, and their reasons for doing what they did were also very human.

It’s tempting to say, “These characters are us,” because they’re not, but they’re still a lot closer to us than traditional superheroes are. And this was especially true in the mid-80s. The Darkening of comics hadn’t begun yet, and it was probably Watchmen that kicked it off. Suddenly, after decades of two-dimensional storytelling and Manichean moral codes, the idea of heroes with ethical failings, personality problems and a faulty moral compass flooded the market. Unfortunately, they were inferior copies of an exceptional original.

Anyway, the story. The world in 1985 is a different place. The rise of the costumed adventurer had a big impact on the social fabric of the United States, and the Cold War has reached levels of tension that nearly break the world in two. America owns a superweapon in the person of Jonathan Osterman, also known as the nearly godlike Doctor Manhattan, but even he can’t stop the political super-powers from the intractable mess they have created. Everyone can feel it, the great burning and the end of the world. Everyone knows it’s coming.

And then someone kills The Comedian.

The death of this adventurer-turned-mercenary sets off a chain reaction that leads to the discovery of a horrific plan to save the world. People who believe themselves to be heroes have to decide what it means to do good when there are no good choices left to make.

It starts off as a murder mystery with hints of conspiracy and ends with a bang, as well as a deep moral quandary – do the ends justify the means, and if so, how far can we take that argument?

There are points to criticize the book, if you want to. One that my friend Joe mentioned is that, for all that the main characters are supposed to be heroes, they’re utterly un-heroic. They’re the antithesis of what a comic-book hero is supposed to be: morally sure and above reproach. Any mistakes that they make, even the ones that result in tragic consequences, should make them more heroic in the end. That’s what makes characters like Spider-Man and Superman such a pleasure to read. We know that, even if they screw up, they’ll ultimately do the right thing.

The same can’t be said for the people in this book. Rorschach is a homicidal existentialist, Ozymandias is a megalomaniac, Doctor Manhattan is a detached nihilist, sort of, and Nite Owl is a pudgy guy in an owl costume. These people are not, by and large, people that you can cheer for. They’re not people you can look up to, mainly because they’re just like us. They’re flawed, very deeply flawed, and we expect our heroes to be better than that.

So, it is possible that you will dislike each and every character in the book, and I can’t blame you for that. Still, it’s worth your time to read, even if it’s just to admire the technical ability of Moore and Gibbons. As for the movie, I can only pray that they do it right. I have a high tolerance for adaptation – and I know there’s no way the entire comic can be fit into a movie – so I will give the filmmakers some leeway. But I pray that they do it right….

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“Somebody has to do it, don’t you see? Somebody has to save the world…”
– Captain Metropolis, Watchmen
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Watchmen at Wikipedia
Watchmen at Wikiquote
Watchmen annotations
Watchmen movie website
Watchmen at Amazon.com

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Filed under Alan Moore, apocalypse, comic books, Dave Gibbons, DC Comics, ethics, graphic novel, made into movies, morality, murder, mystery, super-heroes, terrorism

Review 02: A Series of Unfortunate Events 1 – The Bad Beginning


A Series of Unfortunate Events 1: The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

I am not a violent man. In my lifetime, I have never been in a fight. I’ve never seriously threatened anyone with violence, never made anyone feel afraid by my physical presence, never even really seriously considered doing violence to another person.

Having said that, the feelings this book evoked in me were… violent.

Not because Lemony Snicket has written a book where terribly unfortunate things happen to small children – I have no problems with that and in fact encourage it; it builds character. I want to do violence towards Lemony Snicket because he’s a terrible writer who should never have been allowed to have his words put to paper. His pens should be broken, his notes burned, his hard drive wiped and, if possible, his writings should banned by an Act of Congress. The First Amendment can only go so far.

You may be wondering what has roused this level of bibliorage in me. By all accounts, this series is extremely popular, loved by many. On various book review websites, this book routinely gets at least four stars and high praise. It was even made into a movie starring Jim Carry, and if that’s not the Seal of Public Approval then I don’t know what is. It would seem that one of two things is true: Either I’m seriously overreacting to a tiny aspect of Snicket’s (AKA Daniel Handler’s) writing style or the rest of the world is full of blind ignoramuses who wouldn’t know decent writing if they woke up in bed with it after a bender in Vegas.

As a reviewer, I, of course, choose to believe the latter.

Snicket has taken what should be an entertaining story, filled with untimely death, physical violence, extortion, deception, and pedophilic overtones, and corrupted it by treating its audience like a bunch of drooling idiots.

I am, of course, referring to his habit of defining “difficult” words within the text, with no regard for the flow of the story or the necessity of the definition. For example:

Page 2: “…occasionally their parents gave them permission to take a rickety trolley – the word ‘rickety,’ you probably know, here means ‘unsteady’ or ‘likely to collapse’ – alone to the seashore….”

Page 13: “…over a dull dinner of boiled chicken, boiled potatoes and blanched – the word ‘blanched’ here means ‘boiled’ – string beans.”

Page 18: “‘Please get out of bed and get dressed,’ he said briskly. The word ‘briskly’ here means ‘quickly, so as to get the Baudelaire children to leave the house.'”

Page 44: “…the kitchen grew cozy as the sauce simmered, a culinary term which means ‘cooked over a low heat.'”

And so on.

There are a few occasions where a word is defined well, in context and occasionally in character, and I don’t mind those. But the constant shoehorning in of definitions made me want to take a sharpened number two pencil and work it under Mr. Snicket’s fingernails until he apologized sufficiently for being a hack.

I’ve gotten feedback from people who like this style, especially parents, who say that it saves them from having to put down the book and explain to the child what “blanched” means. Full disclosure: I am not a parent, nor am I likely to ever be one, but I think that teaching a child to figure things out for him or herself – or, god forbid, learn to use a dictionary – is part of what will make her or him grow up to be an inquisitive, intelligent adult. In my real job, teaching English as a foreign language, I find that my students are more likely to remember a word if I make them work for it, rather than if I just tell them what it means.

Let’s face it – if this book is written for adults, then the author should treat his readers like adults. If the book is written for children, which this ostensibly is, then the author has to choose whether to talk up or down to them. In a book where the main characters’ parents die before the first page and where the eldest daughter nearly becomes a child bride to her blood uncle, one would think the author has judged his audience mature enough to deal with these themes. If that’s so, then overtly defining “difficult” words is an insult to his readers, and that is unacceptable to me.

I am reminded of a passage in Terry Pratchett’s book, Wee Free Men, where the main character, a nine year old girl named Tiffany, asks an itinerant teacher about zoology:

“Zoology, eh? That’s a big word, isn’t it.”

“No, actually it isn’t,” said Tiffany. “Patronizing is a big word. Zoology is really quite short.”

I think Mr. Pratchett may have read Mr. Snicket’s book as well.

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“If you enjoy books with happy endings than you are better off reading some other book.”
– Lemony Snicket
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Lemony Snicket homepage
Lemony Snicket on Wikipedia
The Bad Beginning on Amazon.com

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Filed under bad, children, death, fantasy, Lemony Snicket, made into movies, murder