Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America

My Rating: 

Method of Reading: Personally owned paperback book, 390 pages
Dates of Reading: August 1, 2015-August 7, 2015
Author: Erik Larson
Publication Year: 2003
Recommended to: Chicagoans! Especially architecture, history, or, y'know, psychopathy buffs.
Movie: They just announced a Holmes biopic starring Leo DiCaprio which seems to be based around this recounting of his life (which, Larson notes, is one of many possible stories surrounding the serial killer).

Wikipedia Link:

My View: Great book, expertly and uniquely intertwining history and storytelling by comparing two amazingly different and yet overlapping stories of the best city on earth (no bias) at a pivotal moment in history. Engaging, fast paced, and inciting giddiness and a vague sense of haunting alternately.

Your Bibliomaniac

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. New York: Crown, 2003. Print.

Go Set a Watchman

My Rating: 

Method of Reading: Personally owned hardcover novel, 278 pages
Dates of Reading: July 18, 2015-July 22, 2015
Author: Harper Lee
Publication Year: 2015
Recommended to: America.
   "Atticus Finch's secret of living was so simple it was deeply complex: where most men had codes and tried to live up to them, Atticus lived his to the letter with no fuss, no fanfare, and no soul-searching" (114).
   "'With all your book learnin', you are the most ignorant child I ever did see...' Her voice trailed off. '...but I don't reckon you really ever had a chance'" (137).
   "'Did you hate us?'
   [...] She loved us, I swear she loved us" (161).
   "Why doesn't their flesh creep? How can they devoutly believe everything they hear in church and then say the things they do and listen to the things they hear without throwing up?" (167).
   "I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard" (175).
   "No war was ever fought for so many different reasons" (238).
   "You deny that they're human [because] you deny them hope" (251).
   "It's bearable, Jean Louise, because you are your own person now [...] Every man's island, Jean Louise, every man's watchman, is his conscience" (265).
Movie: Nope, and I'd say it's unlikely for a while.

Wikipedia Link:

My View: 
   -NEWS FLASH: Atticus Finch is now a racist!
      -guess what - Atticus was always racist
         -... He was complicit in a racist criminal justice system. What else could he have been?
            -don't leave it at the racism. the man's a walking ethical nightmare.
   -Has anyone mentioned that this book was published only as a result of elder abuse?

   People are freaking out about this book.
   And they shouldn't.
   I love freaking out about books. If this was one to get upset over, I assure you that I would have taken the opportunity and run with it.
   Let's address a few concerns.

   Allegation: More than half a century after deciding not to publish GSAW, Harper Lee was made to show the world TKAM's original edition only when her sister/caretaker died and lawyers and publishers forced her hand.
   Verdict: Probably false.
      I don't want to spend too much time here, because there's not much information to go on. Alabama's investigators have decided that allegations of elder abuse in this case are unfounded, and I sincerely hope that they are right. I'm glad that watchdogs brought the possibility of exploitation to light in this case, but there are at least two reasons why I suspect that Lee might genuinely have wanted this book published now: following the death of her sister, Lee might actually have experienced a new surge of autonomy, creativity, and liberty that inspired her to publish this book; and, as I will describe later, GSAW completes TKAM... Lee might have felt the need for these books, companions in so many unique ways, to be read and appreciated together.

   Allegation: Go Set a Watchman is going to breed a new generation of somehow-more-jaded high school English students by turning the paradigm of individualist moral perfection into a raging racist.
   Verdict: False.
      To begin with, TKAM's Atticus was never perfect. Time and time again, literary scholars have pointed out that the character collectively held up as a beacon of justice is really little more than a beacon of the law. His good nature and legal prowess have made him a demigod for thousands of legally-minded readers, but they overlook the fact that he might have been a little miffed by his assignment to Tom Robinson's case in TKAM, rather than honored by it. "The law is what he lives by" (268). The cerebral white Southern lawyer was bound by intellectual professional ethics, rather than personal morality, to defend a poor black man.
      Had the letter of the law protected French prostitutes from customer brutality in the early 1800s, Inspector Javert could have been a hero as well.
      For those holdouts who named their kids or law firms after Atticus and refuse to acknowledge his TKAM imperfections, there is still hope. Let's assume that To Kill a Mockingbird's Atticus was actually perfect, and Go Set a Watchman's is a monster. How to reconcile these incarnations of the character? Readers need not expect GSAW to be a canonical continuation of TKAM, and therefore need not give themselves pulmonary problems by worrying about Atticus's legacy. GSAW is the Harry Potter in which Ron and Hermione's passionate kiss during the Battle of Hogwarts is merely the final intersection of adrenaline and close friendship, rather than the budding of a lifelong romanceGSAW is the Idiot in which the Prince is a callous and self-obsessed monster instead of a na├»ve but virtuous... idiot; and GSAW is the Giver with a final drone chase. It's a rough draft, a storyboard, a musing, sidewriting. Go Set a Watchman is the first try Lee took to tell the story that eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird, a story where the characters maybe aren't "the point." Readers need not assume that Atticus Finch (GSAW) is a continuation of Atticus Finch (TKAM) or that Scout (TKAM) grows up to be Jean Louise (GSAW). That Harper Lee dabbled with her characters between version 1 - GSAW and version 2 - TKAM should be assumed and evidence is abundant: for instance, the Scout of TKAM would've learned how to ride a bike, whereas her GSAW alter ego claims never to have done so. No matter how trivial this type of difference may seem, it reminds readers of something very important: Don't expect continuity in your characters between drafts. Evidence that this should be assumed in all forms of media can be found here.
      For anyone reading Go Set a Watchman, please use caution when opening To Kill a Mockingbird  characters may have shifted during editing.
      So why have so many generations of TKAM readers insisted on Atticus's perfection? Because Harper Lee wanted you to. She let Atticus's neighbors make the same mistake, one even attributing his goodness to Christian virtue rather than single-minded legal crusading (TKAM, 215). She gave him amazing soundbites of wisdom swaddled in morality to throw around (TKAM... almost every other page). She oversaw the creation of a movie founded on the belief that Atticus Finch could do no wrong. And finally, she wrote TKAM through the eyes of Atticus's adoring daughter, whose youth, purity, and worship of her single parent could not but mesh into a testament to Atticus.
      And that brings me to the second reason Lee might have been personally driven to publish TKAM: something in the story she meant to tell in GSAW was lost in the TKAM rewrite. TKAM's Scout is wearing the blinders of immaturity that GSAW is all about removing. The importance of personal integrity lives on in lines such as the famous, "before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience" (TKAM, 105). But the pressure Jean Louise faces to make her conscience her own in GSAW, to steal it from the clutching hands of the majority, is lived out in a lesser way in TKAM through Atticus instead. Lee needed to redeem her story. She needed to show that it wasn't always a morality lesson, it was a life lesson. Personal integrity is spouted right, left, and center throughout TKAM, but the road to it is intentionally obscured by the very obstacles GSAW seeks to overcome. TKAM needs GSAW to tell the story. And somehow, GSAW needs TKAM to tell the story.
      TKAM diehards like me cling to the myth of a perfect Atticus because we're Jean Louise Finch. We go into books craving a character to hold onto and look up to, and when we take on Scout's first-person views and beliefs Atticus is the obvious choice. Just like Jean Louise, we now need to wake up and build our own islands. I've used some of Atticus's words as guidance in my own life. I wanted to believe he was perfect. If he was perfect, that meant his philosophy, hidden in the pages of TKAM, was perfect, and enough re-reads could help me claim it. And yet I was "born with [my] own conscience, [and] somewhere along the line [mistakenly] fastened it like a barnacle onto [Atticus's]" (GSAW, 265). The dramatic irony of fans' rebellion against an imperfect GSAW Atticus is mind-numbingly beautiful. If GSAW were left unpublished, we would have missed the importance of Uncle Jack's lesson: Every man's island is his conscience. We would've missed out on that lesson as surely as Jean Louise. We can't rely on Atticus to be our conscience (as much as Miss Maudie might like to) and that kills us. We want to keep "Our gods... remote from us... They must never descend to human level" (GSAW, 266). The GSAW story lost that message in TKAM, it toned it down. To understand GSAW as powerfully as it was meant, we had to live as Scout. And thanks to TKAM, we can. But as Scout we have to become Jean Louise someday. And thank so GSAW, we can.
      The relationship between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare, and possibly unique, one in literary history. And the history of these books tells their story. The books as published tell a story they could not possibly have been told in stand-alones, they are performance art if nothing else. Whether Harper Lee and her advisors meant it or not, special books have a magical way of getting their point across. And beyond the words and characters and plots, GSAW and TKAM have done just that.

Your Bibliomaniac

Lee, Harper. Go Set a Watchman. New York: HarperCollins, 2015. Print.

This book has created an online frenzy, so I've to linked a bunch articles that support my conclusions in the review above... here are the articles I referenced:

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Why I couldn't finish LoTR.

I have risked several friendships by admitting this over the summer: I started Lord of the Rings (The Fellowship of the Ring) and couldn't finish it. Maybe I'll come back to The Hobbit someday (which I hear is easier). My reasons for quitting LoTR are fairly straightforward and, to many, probably sound pretty lame.

  1. There's too much description of the landscape that I care very little for.
  2. In spite of the excessive landscape description, non-natural "things" are never described... Hearing what the hills surrounding my characters look like, while having barely any detail about what they are wearing, handling, and interacting with leaves me disengaged.
  3. It's very annoying reading people constantly singing without any tune guidance. 
Maybe I'll just watch the movies.