Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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I don’t really want to debate about whether the publishing of Harper Lee’s “newly” “discovered” “manuscript” was morally right or not. In my opinion, at this juncture, probably not? But that wasn’t enough for me to not read it. I was always going to read it, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Go Set a Watchman may not be the novel Harper Lee meant to publish (for good reason), but it’s a historically significant early version of what became To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now so engrained in the canon of American literature it belongs to readers and no one else. That is my biggest problem with the situation surrounding the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Harper Lee’s, ahem, “team” seems hell bent on the commercial branding of a significant piece of American literature, and that grosses me out.

[Recommended reading: “What Does Harper Lee Want?” by Claire Suddath on bloomberg.com]

There’s a difference between a novel, and say, anything else you can buy at a Target. Yes, you can buy both To Kill a Mockingbird and flavored Starbucks brand K-Cups at Target, but one of these things deserves a little more cultural respect. I say this as someone currently drinking coffee out of a The Great Gatsby mug, so, like, whatever, but still–that’s my biggest issue at the moment re: Harper Lee drama. The publication of Go Set a Watchman makes me uncomfortable because it will potentially make some shitty people money off the work of an old lady who seriously deserves more respect than that. But let’s not fool ourselves: this novel was going to become public sooner or later, and so let’s talk about it now.

There was a lot of handwringing leading up to the publication of Go Set a Watchman that all exploded when it was “revealed” that Atticus Finch was a racist in the novel. I think all the uproar about that little tidbit is seriously misguided. Go Set a Watchman is really about Jean Louise and her feelings towards her hometown; that and her feelings about learning to see her father as a human rather than a god. Also, just FYI: God, do I hate when people take one two-sentence quote from a novel and use it to review an entire novel they ain’t even read yet.

Go Set a Watchman, like Mockingbird, is a novel about small-town Southern racism. I am adamant about Watchman not being a sequel, because it’s obviously a novel written by a writer trying to get a story down right and failing. Lee succeeded with Mockingbird where she fails in Go Set a Watchman, so I consider this a first draft and nothing else. I also don’t think that she changed Atticus all too much. Jean Louise’s disappointment in her father in Go Set a Watchman happens in part when she realizes that he was always more dedicated to the upholding of the law than to enacting social change. But isn’t that just a little bit more realistic from a Southern lawyer in the civil rights era? And Lee doesn’t condone that in this novel–in Watchman, Atticus is an old man who is admirable because he’s a good father and a hard worker, not for his righteousness. He’s human and wrong, but he’s not a villian. Jean Louise’s journey is to figure out how to love him while also upholding her own moral code, which is more progressive than the town she left behind.

Atticus was the hero of that story, and Jean Louise is the hero of Watchman. Her biggest conflict in this novel is an interior one. She comes back to her hometown during a time of social change and needs to decide if she wants to flea from the ignorance and hatred she sees and finds repulsive, or stay and be a dissident voice. In this way, I think Go Set a Watchman stands alone.

The biggest reason Harper Lee wouldn’t want this novel published simple: the writing in To Kill a Mockingbird is better. This is also why I consider Go Set a Watchman a good story, but overall just a draft. It doesn’t have that ‘finished product’ feel. It also consistently annoyed me by switching back and forth between third person and first person narration. The narration would bounce back and forth into Jean Louise’s head so much that I wish it had just been written in the first person.

In the end, this, like To Kill a Mockingbird, is still a story of white people coming to terms with racial injustice. To Kill a Mockingbird was published during a time when it was needed, but I don’t think we need any more stories of white people worrying about racism. (Not that white people shouldn’t be worried about racism. Of course they should be.) There are stories written by people of color about their own experiences*, and those are just more important and necessary right now. Obviously, Go Set a Watchman was not written in 2015, but I think it’s worth mentioning that it’s long past the time that we need to rely on Harper Lee to give us the quintessential moral narrative about racial injustice in America. We don’t need Atticus to lead the way anymore, babies.

[*For those of you who love To Kill a Mockingbird, and would like to read something written from the perspective of a black narrator, I recommend Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody.]

So, have you read Go Set a Watchman yet? What are your thoughts?

Some Months Are Less Exciting: June 2015 Round Up + Library Book Sale Haul

It is July and July is so summer that I am not even going to apologize that this post is late. I’m just going to be chill about it.

I actually didn’t read so much in June, or at least it didn’t feel like I did. I am currently 7 books behind in my Goodreads challenge, and screaming on the inside.

I started the month reading Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood, and it wasn’t bad. I think I need a break from Atwood at the moment, actually, even though The Handmaid’s Tale is up next and I love that novel. I am still going to try to read all of her novels this year (especially since she has a new one coming out in the fall), but I find that it takes me a little longer to get through her books, and I am in the mood for quicker reads now that it’s summer.

Bodily Harm is about a journalist recovering from breast cancer who accidentally travels to a politically dangerous island where shit starts going down. It was a definite maturation in plot than her earlier novels. As always, I love how Atwood writes female characters who are chronically unsatisfied by men. #realism

While I was reading Bodily Harm I also read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout as, you know, some light reading. I reviewed it here. Then, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee over father’s day weekend. There’s some problematic aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird being the ‘quintessential’ racial justice novel in the U.S., but, on the other hand, Atticus is a DILF and I still love this novel. Hopefully I’ll be able to review Go Set a Watchman within the next few weeks, and I will discuss this more. I’m already annoyed by all the Atticus hand-wringing that’s happening online. Just because it takes place in the future doesn’t make it a damn sequel!

I finished out the month with Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown, which is one of the only self-help books that changed my life in real time. It helped me realize that when things feel scary or uncomfortable, that’s actually a good thing. When I want to run is when I should sit still with what’s scaring me. That’s being vulnerable and open, and it leads to everything good.

So, four books last month. I feel like I’m slacking! But, like I said, it’s summer. As for the SWBR summer reading challenge, To Kill a Mockingbird counts for the classics by women challenge.

I’m hoping July will see more books crossed off my list. Also, I went to a library book sale today, so here! A bonus haul!

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The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr / Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (this paperback was in poor shape, but I have been hankering to re-read this so I had to grab it) / The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty by Anne Rice / Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood / American Pastoral by Philip Roth / Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times

Well, that was boring. Now I have to go read. Or watch Orange is the New Black. Either/or.

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout – Book + Miniseries review

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I recently read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, mainly because I was intrigued by the HBO miniseries that recently aired. I generally don’t allow myself to watch adaptations of books without reading the books first. (I feel like I got a lot more out of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie because of this.) Then, my sister recommended that I read it. Another thing about me is that if someone recommends me a book, I will read it. I may not read it right away, or even that year, but I will read it. So if you guys ever recommend me a book, don’t be surprised if I email you five years in the future to tell you my thoughts. You’ll be like, “I’m actually pretty over Jonathan Franzen,” but I’ll still have to tell you about it. Thankfully, because this book hit two of my reading triggers, being both an adaptation I wanted to see and having been recommended to me, I took the e-book out from the library pretty soon after the idea of reading it formed in my head.

Olive Kitteridge was a surprise to me. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it was not what I was expecting at all. It was funnier than I thought it would be, and the entire structure of the novel was strange. I hadn’t really heard anything about it before I read it except that it was about a grumpy lady. That was enough for me. I wasn’t aware, however, how the character Olive Kitteridge is often just a weaving secondary character in a series of short stories about a Maine town–no one seemed to mention this?! There are a few stories that seem like deep treks into the Kitteridge family, but some of the other stories are about, say, a student Olive Kitteridge used to have, or about the singer at the local bar. Olive Kitteridge makes only a brief appearance in the stories about the townspeople, sometimes just as a antidote the character in focus tells.

Which feels like a gimmick, doesn’t it? I hate those!

I think that this is where Olive Kitteridge both sets itself apart and falters. I say falters and not fails because overall I really enjoyed the novel, but I did feel there was a lot of excess in the form of unnecessary characters and plot lines. The stories in Olive Kitteridge I felt the strongest reaction to were the ones that focused on the Kitteridges. Which makes me wish Olive Kitteridge was just a straightforward novel about Olive Kitteridge–maybe I’m just old-fashioned that way.

That’s why I loved the miniseries: it took the small, interesting details from the stories of the townspeople and make them just that–small, interesting details in the background of the main story of the Kitteridges, and Olive, a character that came alive in the miniseries in a new way. (Frances McDormand, by the way, was excellent.)

I had a hard time fully connecting to Olive in the book. I found her character so interesting but hard to grasp: one minute she is pondering about how she hates interacting with people in her town, the next minute she is helping a random girl get help for an eating disorder. It seemed unbelievable. But she felt so real in the miniseries, like the kind of lady all towns know: she knows everyone’s business and even though she’s kind of a jerk she doesn’t judge as much as it seems she does. When she does act out, it is out of the deep hurt of not belonging. She is a deeply flawed and somewhat tragic character, but her weaknesses are just so real that it was sometimes hard to watch.

There’s a lot in this story, and I’m a bad book reviewer, so here is a list of THEMES:

-Small town life turning slightly less wholesome with the passing of time (this book will make you feel kind of sad about chain drugstores)
-Depression! Suicide!
-Children who grow up to resent you!
-Aging and death!
-People from Maine are different from the rest of us!
-Probably the biggest: Human connection and how it is sometimes easier for some people than others, but sometimes the people who have trouble connecting are the ones who need it the most.

I feel kind of like a bad book lover for saying this, but if you must, you should watch the HBO miniseries even if you don’t get around to reading the book. Although I loved the miniseries because I had the background of the novel, the miniseries did a great job of cutting out the narrative fat of Olive Kitteridge, and leaving all the soul-shattering, beautiful, sad, wonderful characterization of the story.