The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

Queen's Gambit book cover

Information

Goodreads: The Queen’s Gambit
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1983

Official Summary

When she is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth Harmon soon discovers two ways to escape her surroundings, albeit fleetingly: playing chess and taking the little green pills given to her and the other children to keep them subdued. Before long, it becomes apparent that hers is a prodigious talent, and as she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings she is able to forge a new life for herself. But she can never quite overcome her urge to self-destruct. For Beth, there’s more at stake than merely winning and losing. 

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Review

It seems as if everyone has seen the Netflix adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit (even though it’s not everyone; Krysta hasn’t seen it!), and the miniseries is so brilliant and charming and engaging that I find it impossible not to compare the book to it in this review. The short version is: The book and the adaptation are astonishingly close – there’s practically nothing in the novel that isn’t in the miniseries – but I actually prefer the show. The screenwriters smartly streamlined the story in a couple places, and the actors brought the story to life in a way that made reading the book a better experience for me.

As I was reading, I was reminded strongly of the time I attempted to read Pride & Prejudice after watching the BBC miniseries about three times in a row; the stories seemed so close that I could recognize the word-for-word dialogue pulled from the pages for the show. Unlike with Pride & Prejudice, however, I did not abandon reading The Queen’s Gambit because of this but, rather, plodded steadily on, enjoying seeing the characters I’d become so invested in once again. There were only a few places that I recognized the show deviated from the book, and by and large I approve of the changes. For instances, the show eliminates a few minor characters and replaces them with major ones. The boy who yells profanities in the orphanage in the book becomes Jolene in the show, for instance, while a random man discussing chess at a tournament becomes Benny.

The book also has a few sexual scenes in the orphanage that were eliminated in the show, and I cannot emphasize how strongly I think removing these was a great decision. I was extremely uncomfortable watching Jolene make advances to Beth and imply that she had a relationship with a teacher at the school and later watching Beth masturbate by herself. I don’t know what the author was going for here, if he thought this would happen at an orphanage and was “realistic” or if he thought it was “artsy” or what, but it added absolutely nothing to the plot or character development.

The book was also full of chess, which means practically nothing to me. I had a friend explain some of the games that were narrated more in-depth, but understanding the chess was not necessary, nor did I feel that it was so confusing that it detracted from the book.

Mostly, however, I appreciate the actors’ interpretations of the characters in the show. Alma came across a bit flat to me in the book, but in the show one gets more of a sense that she did try her best to be a decent mother and that Beth was attached to her. Similarly, I think Beth’s and Jolene’s relationship comes across more clearly in the show; reading the book alone, it wouldn’t be clear to me why Beth might want to call her years after leaving the orphanage.

So is the book worth reading? Yes and no. It’s a good story, but it’s also so close to the adaptation that I think watching the show is “enough.”

Briana
4 stars

Taipei by Tao Lin

Taipei by Tao Lin

Information

Goodreads: Taipei
Series: None
Source: Library
Publication Date: 2013

SummarY

Lacking meaning and direction, Paul goes through the motions of life, failing at relationships, taking increasingly large amounts of drugs, and filming all his interactions in an attempt to make them real.

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Review

Taipei is a very modern book, the type of modern book that assumes that the current generation can all be lumped together into one disillusioned mass.  Life is meaningless, depression universal, and ennui the only constant.  Writing about these things makes your book deep.  This book is perhaps the quintessential “literary fiction,” if the excruciating (yet experimental) prose style does not disqualify it from that label.

One does not read Taipei for the plot, because it barely has one.  Rather, one reads Taipei to feel part of the cultured avant garde.  Perhaps writing about characters who wander around aimlessly having sex and taking increasingly large amounts of drugs is overdone.  But that apparently does not preclude a book from being “deep” and “edgy.”   If it does, Tao Lin chooses to distinguish his book by writing it in a prose style that can perhaps only politely be called “unique.”

If Lin were not a published author, it would be tempting to call his prose “amateur.”  Like many a new writer, he over-describes everything, adding as many adjectives as possible as he goes into excruciating detail about mundane moments.  This is, however, deliberate.  His adjectives tend to be overly clinical and sometimes a little bizarre; he makes the reader feel the weirdness of life, much like his main character Paul.  He even adds everyone’s age after their name (as in Michelle, 21, walked toward Chelsea”) as if writing a movie script.  This gives the reader a sense of removal, of alienation–they are observing life from afar, trying to piece it all together.

The clinical over-descriptions are paired with sentences that run on for ages, usually with clauses modifying nothing else in the sentence.  Rereading the paragraph does nothing to help the reader make sense of it all, because there is no sense.  Again, this seems to mirror Paul’s understanding of life.  He is trying to communicate, trying to find meaning, but there is no meaning for him to find.  He is going through the motions of life and he does not even know why.

The ending of the book might redeem it for some, as it tries to lift Paul out of his depression and give him something to hope for.  Personally, however, I found this to be cheap after a couple hundred pages of watching Paul get high and sabotage every single one of his relationships.  If a book is going to be about the meaningless of it all, I want it to have the guts to maintain that outlook through the end.

Taipei is your typical modern book about characters lacking direction and meaning in life, and turning to substance abuse in an attempt to escape their terrible reality.  Readers who find that sort of thing deep may want to pick up Taipei.  However, I tend to think joy and wonder are more difficult to write than despair–I’ve read too many college pieces on drug usage to be impressed–and I do not relate or subscribe to the idea that life is meaningless.  As a result, I was mainly frustrated by Paul and bored by the book.  I don’t intend to read another Tao Lin book, if I can help it.

2 star review

We Are Here Forever by Michelle Gish (ARC Review)

Information

Goodreads: We Are Here Forever
Source: BookCon
Series: None
Publication Date: July 30, 2019

Official Summary

A hilarious graphic novel in which the human race has been supplanted by a sweeter, kinder, happier species…but are they as innocent as they seem? In this post-apocalyptic comedy, it’s survival of the cutest!

After the most adorable apocalypse ever, the human race has vanished from the earth, replaced cute, innocent, playful purple creatures called the Puramus. In this hilarious and epic graphic novel, short interlocking stories follow the purple pals as they explore their new home, form a mini-monarchy, and develop a modern society on par with 21st-century humans. A final act pulls us across time and space in the search for clues to the origins of the Puramus. Along the way, humor and intrigue abound: Can King defend his village when nobody understands what war is? Will Jingle work up the nerve to read her poetry at open mic night? Will Puff Puff ever stop floating? Based on the viral Tumblr comic that gained 18,000 followers in just one year, We Are Here Forever is for fans of post-apocalyptic sci-fi blended with dry comedy and undeniable cuteness. Colorful and cartoony art will you rooting for these cute critters through their absurd adventures. But where did they come from, and what happened to all the humans?

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Review

We Are Here Forever is a cute collection of comics about an alien species called the Puramus who inhabit Earth after humans are gone (though the story suggests there was at least a brief period where humans and the Puramus lived together).  The book’s target audience will likely be fans of the web comic (which I have not read and had never heard of before receiving an ARC), but it is completely accessible to readers who have not read the comic before and is worth checking out if you would like a quick, cute read with a subtle undertone of darkness.

“Cute” is definitely going to be the selling point here, as the Puramus are adorable purple creatures who just don’t *quite* understand the world as humans left it.  They clearly speak English but don’t understand a lot of technology or have English words for every object.  They also have a penchant for directly stating their emotions, which is kind of charming, and like to do fun things like make Puramus stacks and go on quests.

The darkness of the book is related to its promise that it will reveal hints about the origins of the Puramus and how they came to live on Earth.  That’s the readers’ perspective.  The mystery from the Puramus point of view is where the humans went.  (This is a bit odd since they seemed to have lived *with* humans briefly, so there are times I think the logic of the comic doesn’t quite come together.  Perhaps it makes more sense in the context of the fuller web comic.)  At any rate, there are some things about the Puramus that are not quite cute that add a bit of edge to the story.

Overall, a quick read I recommend.

4 stars Briana

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle Book Cover by Dave EggersInformation

Goodreads: The Circle
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: 2013

Official Summary

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world–even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public.

What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge

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Review

I was initially intrigued by this book because it was mentioned in The Bestseller Code: The Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel as, well, a prime example of a bestselling novel.  Apparently, it gets a lot of ingredients right to get people buying it and reading it, everything from focusing on the popular topic of “technology” to having a captivating pace.  Notably, its success  earned it a movie deal in 2017.  Thus, it was with some surprise I found that I didn’t like this novel at all.

Although the novel was published only six years ago and even though the setting seems as if it’s meant to be near-ish future from 2013, parts of the premise and execution feel dated.  Our society is still facing concerns related to the two main ones raised — invasion of privacy and the threat of a single company (Amazon?) becoming an all-powerful monopoly — yet reading a novel fear-mongering about these these seems almost cliche in 2019.  The message also seemed heavy-handed; this is a novel about an idea, a warning that Big Tech and loss of privacy are bad.  Characterization, plot, setting, etc. are all secondary to the message.  So when the message seems like old news?  The book becomes boring.

The heavy-handedness also makes many of the characters irritating (at least to me).  Sure, Eggers strives to give some of them layers, particularly protagonist Mae, but the reality is that most of them are just representing something, almost like a modern-day allegory.  Mae, although she likes kayaking and has a few other interests to make her “real,” is basically the representation of the “average” person; she likes technology but initially doesn’t start out photographing, “zinging” about, or otherwise “sharing” literally every single thing she does.  Then there are the people working at the Circle who want *everything* recorded, the character who hates technology and wants to go off-grid, etc.  And they all make speeches explaining their points of view.  Some write letters.  It’s almost like reading a George Orwell novel with all the monologues about idealogy.  Except more annoying because people keep repeating the idealogy.

Plot-wise, there may be something to the theory that the pacing keeps readers turning pages because I didn’t like the book, but I did finish it–albeit by skimming here and there.  Awkward sex scenes interrupted the pacing rather than helping it (and the asides about characters “ample chests” made me think of all those Twitter and Reddit threads about “men writing women”).  The end is also predictable because, well, the book has one point and one point only to make about the badness of technology developing in this specific way.

So, do I recommend this?  No.  It was a bestseller, but the ratings on Goodreads actually aren’t that generous, and the movie adaptation didn’t fare much better.  The public might interested in technological dystopians and the loss of privacy, and that’s enough to get people to buy the book or pick it up, but the execution just isn’t here.  This book isn’t that good.

2 star reviewBriana

 

Park Avenue Summer by Renee Rosen (ARC Review)

Park Avenue Summer

INformation

Goodreads: Park Avenue Summer
Series: None
Source: Giveaway
Publication Date: April 30,2019

Official Summary

Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada as Renée Rosen draws readers into the glamour of 1965 New York City and Cosmopolitan Magazine, where a brazen new Editor-in-Chief–Helen Gurley Brown–shocks America by daring to talk to women about all things off limits…

New York City is filled with opportunities for single girls like Alice Weiss who leaves her small Midwestern town to chase her big city dreams and unexpectedly lands the job of a lifetime working for Helen Gurley Brown, the first female Editor-in-Chief of a then failing Cosmopolitan Magazine.

Nothing could have prepared Alice for the world she enters as editors and writers resign on the spot, refusing to work for the woman who wrote the scandalous bestseller, Sex and the Single Girl. While confidential memos, article ideas, and cover designs keep finding their way into the wrong hands, someone tries to pull Alice into this scheme to sabotage her boss. But Alice remains loyal and becomes all the more determined to help Helen succeed. As pressure mounts at the magazine and Alice struggles to make her way in New York, she quickly learns that in Helen Gurley Brown’s world, a woman can demand to have it all.

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Review

Park Avenue Summer is an interesting fictionalized account of the first months that Helen Gurley Brown took over a dying Cosmopolitan magazine and, against the wishes of Hearst executives, turned it from a women’s magazine about the home into one about sex and relationships.  The protagonist is actually Alice, Helen’s new secretary who is completely unqualified for the position but gets it through personal connections (such is the world of publishing, I supposed).  However, though the book does deal with Alice’s personal life including her friendships, sexual flings as she tries being a modern girl who has sex without ties just for fun, and her family secrets, the book really does revolve all around Gurley Brown and her vision for Cosmopolitan, and readers get a sense of how Alice is sucked into a mentality of “work and the magazine before all else,” trapped in the cult of Helen Gurley Brown, a bit like in The Devil Wears Prada.

My personal issue with the main tension of the book being “Will the new, sexy magazine succeed?” is that I didn’t really care either way.  Rosen does a fantastic job of portraying Helen as the underdog fighting an entire executive board, even an entire industry to launch a “modern” magazine for “her girls” that will touch on topics that are rather taboo.  When readers see how far people (mostly men) go to sabotage her, her career, and the magazine (which Hearst actually wants to fold, not revive, as they stated when they hired Gurley Brown), they won’t be able to help rooting for her.  However, beyond the “I like when underdogs win” feeling, I wasn’t invested in either Gurley Brown or her vision.

Alice talks about Gurley Brown as if she’s a force of nature, strong-willed and able to get her way even when people don’t want to give it to her.  However, those moment are represented rarely in the book.  Instead we see her crying (fair, considering what people are doing to her), calling other female employees things like “pussycat” (which seems the opposite of empowering), and, worst of all, frequently calling her husband to bail her out.  She got the job through her husband’s influence, then she calls him every time something goes wrong. She leaves the office to spend time with him so he can calm her down.  He is at every restaurant she hosts an important meeting at, ready to bail her out.  He writes parts of the magazine and solves her problems for her.  There’s nothing wrong with relying on a spouse for support, but I don’t know how much Gurley Brown was a strong, insightful woman with a vision. vs. a woman with a powerful, confident husband who did half her work for her.

I also balked at really rooting for the vision of the magazine.  Gurley Brown talks a lot about the modern, career-oriented woman and how she wants to help them (ok, “her girls”) succeed, but none of the stories she pitches are ever about careers or general empowerment. She tells Hearst executives that she’s going to write about how to touch a woman’s breasts, how to best masturbate, how to have an affair with a married man, etc.  Every other word out of her mouth was about having sex and sexual pleasure.  Being sex positive is one thing, but I could kind of see why the other magazine employees thought she was crazy and incredibly vulgar.  She seems more sex-obsessed than interested in actual female empowerment.

The fact I didn’t personally like Helen Gurley Brown or her vision for Cosmopolitan doesn’t mean the book was bad, of course.  I don’t need to find characters likable or relatable.  However, I do think the book struggled with the balance of focusing on Gurley Brown vs. focusing on the actual protagonist.  Alice herself is, frankly, a bit dull.  She gets all of her big breaks from nepotism, which is irritating, but, worse than that, she’s a bit dull.  Things seem to happen to her or at her, rather than because she herself took any action.  If she weren’t working for Gurley Brown and getting dragged into things bigger than herself because of luck and personal connections, she’d be incredibly uninteresting.

So, as a story, I think Park Avenue Summer is a bit dry. As an account of an interesting period in the magazine industry and the history of Cosmopolitan in particular, it’s worth a read if you don’t know much about this topic.

3 Stars Briana

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

state of wonder

Information

Goodreads: State of Wonder
Series: None
Source: Gift
Published: June 7, 2011

Official Summary

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness.

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Review

State of Wonder isn’t a usual type of read for me, but a friend picked it up for me as a birthday gift, and I was excited to jump in, since I’ve never read anything by Ann Patchett before. I was delighted to find a subtle book that combines a narrative about the protagonist’s personal development with a plot about essential medical research being hidden in the depths of the Amazon, putting both the protagonist and the reader into the titular “state of wonder.”

This is probably a book that, if read in a school class, students would criticize for not being “relateable.”  It’s not about a middle-aged white man, but it is about a middle-aged white woman, working in a lab and covertly dating her boss, thinking about her career and the what-ifs of maybe settling down and having a family before it’s “too late.”  And, honestly, while this stage of life doesn’t apply to be either, I think it’s the first thing I found refreshing about the book.  I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately, and I found it nice to read about someone with wildly different life concerns and perspectives on things.

I was also impressed by the prose, which is sophisticated and subtle.  Patchett doesn’t tell you everything about the protagonist or the plot, but she gives you enough information to figure it out.  A lot happens in the book that characters are aware of but never directly mention (things in their personal lives like romantic jealousy, or things related to the medical project being done in the Amazon that the scientists don’t want the media to jump on).  I also enjoyed this sort of oblique writing about things that are visible just under the surface

And, finally, I also enjoyed the plot.  It unravels slowly, as the protagonist leaves the US, spends some time in a city in Brazil, and then finally makes it to uncharted territory in the Amazon.  Each setting in vividly described, and I felt as if Patchett must have visited the places she was writing about (I have no idea whether she actually did).  The explanation of what exact research is being done and why people are being secretive about it unfolds slowly to these backdrops, but the pacing is just right to tantalize readers and leave them wanting to know more.

I did feel that the ending came a bit out of left field, but I think I understand the author’s reasoning for it.  Things could not have ended with a picture perfect tied bow because, as is the theme of the book, the Amazon just doesn’t work like that.  I think the ending also highlights that, as much as these researches respect the Amazon and some of them even seem to fit into it, they still value each other over the native inhabitants, and it’s a jolt to be reminded of it at the very end.

I really liked this one, and I recommend it, but I do think it will be a tough sell to readers who normally prefer the fact-paced action-packed plots of YA novels.

4 stars Briana

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant

Information

Goodreads: The Buried Giant
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: March 3, 2015

Official Summary

“You’ve long set your heart against it, Axl, I know. But it’s time now to think on it anew. There’s a journey we must go on, and no more delay…”

The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years.

Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro’s first novel in nearly a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge, and war.

Review

I’ve read The Buried Giant twice now, and enjoyed it both times, but it’s taken me a while to sit down and write a review for it.  It’s a unique book, and though I know I like it, my thoughts are still a bit muddled–yet perhaps that’s part of the point.

The book follows an elderly Anglo-Saxon couple, Beatrice and Axl–who are setting out on a long-postponed journey to visit their son.  The problem? There’s a “fog” surrounding them and apparently the entire country; they find it hard to remember things, important things about themselves, their family, or the history of Britain itself.  The book is complicated because it intertwines the personal and the national.  It about both Axl and Beatrice AND the entire British identity.  As Axl and Beatrice travel, they meet a variety of people, including Sir Gawain, who raise questions about King Arthur and war and what horrors Britain experience or may experience in the future. The novel is about individual memory (and a friend of mine nicely noted that this is in large part a novel about dementia), but it is also about national memory. And these things do not always cleanly intersect into a coherent whole.

On top of this, the novel is also about love.  That’s partially connected to the personal memories of Axl and Beatrice, and there are questions about whether remembering or not remembering things can influence your love.  (Can you prove or know you really love someone if  you cannot remember your whole life together with them?)  And while this is fascinating, it often seems to be like it’s own separate theme and thread in the story.

Yet I like the book in spite of (because of?) this murkiness.  It’s unusual, unique.  First, books about elderly people are not entirely common. Second, books imagining the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain are not common.  Third, the Anglo-Saxon books that do exist focus on knights and royalty and those sorts of people.  While Beatrice and Axl meet knights, they themselves are perfectly ordinary peasants.  It’s interesting.

I haven’t read anything else by Ishiguro, but other people I’ve talked to have said that his writing style in The Buried Giant is similar to his other writing.  I personally don’t think the book sounds “old” or that he was necessarily trying to make it sound old.  He avoids anachronism (and I’ve had it pointed out to me that this is in itself difficult, which I concede), but the voice seems like a generic modern one to me, unobtrusive.  So if you like reading about older time periods but can’t deal with people walking around yelling, “Hark!” and “What aileth thee, goodman?” then this is a good choice for you.

I’m not about to prance off and read another Ishiguro book because what really drew me to this one was the setting and the plot. However, I do highly recommend The Buried Giant for a thoughtful story and imaginative book.

Note: You may have heard of the minor controversy around the book’s release when Ishiguro made a statement that many fantasy fans and authors (notably Ursual K. Le Guin) interpreted as a dig at fantasy.  After reading the book twice, I don’t think Ishiguro was actually trying to insult fantasy or to claim his book is not fantasy because he looks down on the genre (i.e. He wasn’t saying “Fantasy is garbage and my book is not garbage; therefore, I refuse to call it fantasy”).  I think he was actually just trying to grapple with a generic characterization of a book that has fantasy elements but also feels like history, memoir, magic realism, etc.

4 stars Briana

In the Beginning by Chaim Potok

in-the-beginningInformation

Goodreads: In the Beginning
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1975

Official Summary

David Lurie learns that all beginnings are hard. He must fight for his place against the bullies in his Depression-shadowed Bronx neighborhood and his own frail health. As a young man, he must start anew and define his own path of personal belief that diverges sharply with his devout father and everything he has been taught…

Review

“All beginnings are hard.”

In the Beginning differs from some of Potok’s other novels in that the narration switches seamlessly between past and present, smearing together time. This is a literary style I do not always like, as I think it is often unnecessary and therefore can come across as pretentious, but Potok makes it work. It fits the story, as David attempts to explain the origins of his people and his beliefs, how his past is so strongly connected to his present and his future.  In the Beginning, then, though different in style from many Potok books, exudes the same heart and understanding of human nature that make Potok a true master.

David starts the novel as a sickly child, weak and often afraid, particularly of that which he does not understand.  His voice, to me, sometimes comes across as odd: too adult and yet so naïve at once.  He’ll frequently tell others (close to him) about his emotions, that he’s afraid or that “It was a really bad feeling.”  David, however, is supposed to be a bit of an oddball character, a child with a big brain he does not necessarily know how to use.  Adults credit him with understanding more than he lets on.  So, while young David is a bit strange, he grows throughout the novel, slowly coming into his own—and slowly losing his openness when he learns what it can cost him.

The book will draw to mind, a little, My Name Is Asher Lev, as David also struggles with wanting to learn and do and understand things his community thinks best not to be understood.  The theme here is more educational and intellectual attainment, rather than art, and it’s perhaps less at the forefront.  The protagonist’s struggles are comparable, however.  Strangely, though I love Potok’s works, I have never done biographical research on him.  Yet In the Beginning strikes me as clearly autobiographical, and I think I begin to understand some of what Potok must have lost—and gained—while pursuing his own writing career and his own search for truth.

Potok’s works, in general, are quite readable to those readers without much knowledge of Judaism, though I think In the Beginning gives somewhat fewer context clues for terms than Potok’s other novels.  It’s nothing a quick Google search will not be able to readily resolve for a reader, however.  This story also relies a bit on the reader’s knowledge of history, but only in very broad terms.  David lives through the Great Depression, though the term is never used and child Davis is only vaguely aware that many families have money problems; readers have to fill in the gaps.  A bit of the same ambiguity is applied to the description of WWII, though the novel gets gradually more explicit (which, admittedly, is historically accurate; David’s family is shocked by what the newspapers reveal at the war’s end).

Potok’s work is always deeply personal while also offering profound insight into humanity at large.  Others of Potok’s novels are closer to my heart, but In the Beginning is certainly a masterpiece in its own right and well worth the read.  I’m sorry I took this long to get around to it.

4 stars Briana

4 Things to Know about Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman

Introduction

Go Set a Watchman has been mired in controversy since before its release, with big media outlets releasing quotes from the text designed to show readers what a mess they would be getting into if they chose to pick up the book.  While I acknowledge Go Set a Watchman is very much still in the draft stage of a novel and would have benefited from revisions before publication if Lee were able to make them, I do think the media reporting and early reviews by some readers were misleading about the book and what it’s trying to accomplish. Read on to discover four things you ought to know if you’ve already made up your mind never to read Go Set a Watchman.

Spoiler Warning for Those Who Prefer to Know Nothing about the Book!

1. Early Readers Misrepresented the Discussion of Race

One of the biggest controversies surrounding Go Set a Watchman at the time of release was about the supposed racist nature of the book.  You can still go on Goodreads and find readers who have copied offensive passages into the review field and left a big, fat 1 star for the novel.  The problem? There are certainly racist characters in the book…but the book itself is not racist.  The book itself is about how the racists are wrong.

Our protagonist, Jean Louise (Scout), struggles with returning home to Maycomb and realizing that people she once respected have become openly racist.  She’s horrified, appalled.  She goes on long monologues and internal reflections about how all their viewpoints are a perversion of the truth and she can no longer associate with them. She cannot believe how far Maycomb has fallen and just wants to flee back to more open-minded New York.

Jean Louise is clearly the character readers are meant to sympathize with, not the racists she is butting heads with.  Readers might argue they dislike the way the confrontation plays out (especially considering the book was written decades ago and never revised to fit 2016 perspectives on these issues), but to say the book is racist because it features secondary characters who are racist (AND are distinctly condemned for being so) is truly missing the point.

2. Hating Atticus Might Be a Feature, Not a Flaw

The second biggest controversy is the fact that Atticus Finch, undisputed hero of To Kill a Mockingbird and an inspiration to all, is one of the racists.  It’s true that this is disappointing and arguably doesn’t even align with what we know about Atticus from To Kill a Mockingbird (see point 4).  It’s clear why people are upset. However, if readers simply go along for the ride and accept this revelation, it will fully immerse them into the book. After all, this is exactly what Go Set a Watchman is about: Scout learning that her hero, her father, is not perfect.  It’s a hard blow for all of us.

Jean Louise talks to her uncle about the fight she had with Atticus over race:

“Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise.  They must never descend to human level.”

“Is that why he didn’t–didn’t lam into me?  I s that why he didn’t even try to defend himself?”

“He was letting you break your icons one by one.  He was letting you reduce him to the status of a human being.”

‘I love you.’  ‘As you please.’  Where she would have had a spirited argument only, an exchange of ideas, a clash of hard and different points of view with a friend, with him she had tried to destroy.  She had tried to tear him to pieces, to wreck him, to obliterate him.

3. Lee Has Wise Words about Tolerance and Dialogue

Lee, however, does not allow Jean Louise to rest on her laurels of being right, and this might be the boldest and most insightful move she makes in the book.  Anyone can be convinced they are right (even the racists in this book believe in their own moral correctness), and Lee makes it clear that it’s what one does with one’s morals that matters.  Shunning those who disagree with you because you think they’re “toxic” and not worth listening to, living in a echo chamber or a bubble where you only talk to those who are like-minded, these are acts of cowardice to Lee.  Courage is actually engaging in dialogue with people who who have opinions opposite to yours, actually listening to them and trying to understand what it is they believe and why they believe it.  Yelling at them and leaving means nothing.  Letting them talk without truly listening to their words is pointless.

Jean Louise’s uncle argues you can fit the definition of a bigot even when you’re right:

“You’re very much like [Atticus], except you’re a bigot and he’s not.”

“I beg your pardon?”

[…]

“What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give.  He stays rigid.  Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.  Now you, you were turned inside out by the granddaddy of all father things, so you ran, and how you ran.

“You’ve no doubt heard some pretty offensive talk since you’ve been home, but instead of getting on your charger and blindly striking it down, you turned and ran.  You said, in effect, ‘I don’t like the way these people do, so I have no time for them.’  You’d better take time for ’em, honey, otherwise you’ll never grow.  You’ll be the same at sixty as you are now–then you’ll be a case and not my niece.  You have a tendency not to give anybody elbow room in your mind for their ideas, no matter how silly you think they are.”

4. If You Dislike the Book, You Can Ignore It

Go Set a Watchman has an complicated publication history.  The publisher and Lee’s lawyer insist they had Lee’s permission to take the work to the public, but many people were and remain skeptical of this claim.  Even if Lee had authorized publication, the book was somewhat disingenuously packaged and marketed as “the sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.”  In reality, Go Set a Watchman is an early draft of what later became To Kill a Mockingbird.  This manuscript was not in any way edited or revised to be printed as an official sequel, meaning its value may be primarily academic, and perhaps should have been marketed as many of J.R.R. Tolkien’s drafts have been (i.e. clearly marked as drafts, and with acknowledgement they might be of most interest to scholars and super fans, rather than the casual reader).

One simple fact remains in all this confusion: We have no idea what Lee thinks of Go Set a Watchman.  We don’t know if she considers the text only a draft, something full of ideas she once had for her characters but has since discarded, or if she considers the text “canon,” an official (albeit rough and unedited) sequel.  So if you don’t like how Maycomb or your favorite characters evolved, that’s fine.  With no indication that Lee approves of Go Set a Watchman as canon, you can simply pretend that the events in the book never happened.

Conclusion

Go Set a Watchman is far from perfect.  It takes awhile to get into, and there are info dumps that seem weird if you consider it as a sequel rather than an intended standalone.  Parts of it are confusing, and sometimes it seems as though someone’s trying to say something wise but you can’t quite figure out what it is.  These are doubtless some of the problems that prompted Lee to revise the book–into something almost entirely different.  However, the criticism that has surrounded the book, either due to the lack of editing or due to the supposed racism, has led critics to overlook what the book is actually trying to achieve and to ignore the parts that are true gems.  More than anything, Go Set a Watchman says “potential” to me.  Lee has important things to say and a strong narrative touch with which to say them.  It’s clear why this book wasn’t published as-is, but it’s also clear why an editor took a chance on Lee’s talent.

Briana

Train Whistle Guitar by Albert Murray

Train Whistle GuitarINFORMATION

Goodreads: Train Whistle Guitar
Series: Scooter #1
Source: Purchased
Published: 1975

SUMMARY

Scooter narrates his life growing up in Gasoline Point, Alabama, in the 1920s, from his admiration of the train-hopping, guitar-playing Luzana Cholly to his desire to eavesdrop on adult conversations in the barbershop to his first experiences with girls.

REVIEW

Albert Murray’s Train Whistle Guitar is a coming-of-age story that, from what I have read, closely mirrors his own experiences growing up.  It presents the story of Scooter, a boy who lives in a town so small it is known only because it’s a stop on the rails, as he matures in a close-knit community in the South.

In many ways Murray’s novel seems like an answer to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the black experience growing up told by a black voice.   Like Twain’s protagonists, Scooter experiences some horrifying and dangerous things, but takes them in the stride of boyhood.  Hopping the rails, discovering a body hidden by bootleggers, and witnessing the violence of racial prejudice are all just parts of life that he must learn to navigate.  But here the reader finds no Jim–instead Scooter narrates his own experiences and so rises above stereotypes.

And Scooter’s narration is a wonder.  Murray’s prose has a bluesy feel, with the characters speaking in patterns that are reminiscent of call-and-response, and the words tumbling across the page like a song.  Scooter’s world is half real, half folktale–he speaks of legendary time and heroes, and his narration seems like an attempt to freeze his own experience in some mystical in-between place where children remain young and carefree, but also poised just on the brink of maturity.

Train Whistle Guitar is a unique read and one well worth it for those who love a good storyteller.

Krysta 64