Thursday, 14 August 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This was a fabulous book. Yes, it’s a children’s book and was an easy read, but I loved it. Not in the same sense as I love Anne of Green Gables because it was happy, but because it touched on sensitive issues while conveying the atmosphere of the South from a child’s point of view. Jem and Scout live a fairly good and normal life with their father, Atticus, in a sleepy town in Alabama. There are only two things that separate them from other people in their town. The first is that they live next to a mysterious neighbour who never appears outside and of whom the town’s children have painted themselves a rather ghoulish picture. The other is that their father is a lawyer who is given the job of defending a black man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman. Jem and Scout’s father is a liberal man who has, as much as you could expect from the era, taught his children that all men are created equal and that racism is wrong. What other people say and do doesn’t really affect them until their family becomes a target for their abuse. They are non-plussed to find that people can be so unfair and hateful when they were taught so much differently. In this respect, I, and probably most people, can sympathize with them. We all believe that what we are taught at home is right and are surprised to find that the world outside often looks a lot different than it is presented to us at home. It is, in a sense, the end of their innocence.

Atticus does his homework and destroys the case against Tom by basically proving that he is innocent. However, this was in a time when a simple baseless accusation against a black person was a sentence of guilt and Tom is convicted despite the incontrovertible proof that he could not possibly have done it. The (adult) reader knows this, but Jem and Scout are crushed with the sudden weight of knowing that a terrible injustice has been done. Every nerve cell in their brain is crying out that it was all so unfair, yet there was nothing they could do about it. It’s sad to watch the children learn the lesson that there are things in life you cannot change and you just have to go on living your life despite it all. It’s even sadder to realize that this is all a part of our history and is still part of society today even if to a lesser degree. Poor Tom never had a chance and it makes me wonder how often this still happens today. The only justice Tom received was that the whole town knew the truth after the trial, even if they were to cowardly to legally recognize it. They knew that the girl’s father, Bob Ewell made the story up to hide his own depravity.

I found myself wondering if Tom’s chances would have been better if the trial had taken place sooner. By the time the trial did take place, the whole town had basically taken their stance and to turn around and admit that they were wrong in a moment was asking them to loose face which is something their pride wouldn’t allow. They took the easy way out and convicted him anyway even though they knew it was an injustice. That just doesn’t say much for the humanity of man. It leaves you wondering if humans are really as advanced as we think we are.

The conclusion of the book was well done. Harper Lee managed to slip in another lesson to the children in the form of their reclusive neighbour Boo. The man they had made ghoulish and had treated badly with their taunts and tricks was the man who saved them from an attack by Bob Ewell who tried to take revenge on Atticus for destroying what was left of his name in the town by killing his children. Once again the children realized that the prevailing opinion wasn’t always the right one and that imposing characteristics onto other people often obscures the truth. They learned that there are many different shade of grey in between the black and white polar opposites.

All in all the book was a good read and gave me a lot to think about. It’s not hard to see why it is an American classic.

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

This is one of those books that everyone talks about but I never read because it wasn’t on my list for school. Now that I’ve read it, I’m afraid I just couldn’t really see the point of it, other than to show what it was like for a teenager who is going insane. Just reading it nearly made me go insane. It’s not that nothing really happens that bothered me, but the endless repetitions of the main character Holden drove me crazy. He’d repeat things three or four times before moving on to the next odd subject. I felt like I was watching someone with OCD who needed to wash their hands five times before they are satisfied that they are clean. If he didn’t repeat something at least four times, he was not going to be able to move on.

I suppose Holden just really didn’t like himself, but couldn’t face it, so he shunted the brunt of his dislike onto other people. This is especially true when you take into consideration that everything he disliked about other people were things he did himself. Most of the time I spent reading this book were accompanied by thoughts that the boy really needed to see a psychologist and the whole “you need to hitch up your trousers and get serious” attitude take by the adults just wasn’t going to cut it with that guy. That’s kind of like saying that he needed some sense smacked into him. That might make the smacker feel better, but it won’t do the senseless person one iota of good.

I’m afraid I just personally didn’t care for this book and I don’t quite see what the fuss is about.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Niel Gaimen

I LOVE this book. Love it. Not that I expect the rest of the world to love it, or even like it, but I do. It’s just my kind of humour. It’s not laugh until you fall off your chair humour, it’s really dry and sometimes quite subtle and I adore it.

Crowley and Aziraphale are friends (even if they would never admit it); the only problem being that Crowley is an angel of hell and Aziraphale an angel of heaven. You’d think they would be at loggerheads with each other, the only problem being that after several thousand centuries of being on earth with each other, they’ve become accustom to having each other around. They seem to have a sort of live and let live relationship and even when discussing their differences over a plate of pasta or cup of coffee, each understands that the other must think the way he does as it is in his nature by definition; in short, they don’t take things personally.

Then a problem pops up. The powers that be decide that the time for Armageaddon has come and has sent the anti-christ, in the form of an 11 year old boy, to begin proceedings.

By now, both Crowely and Aziraphale have decided that they really kind of like their life on earth and really don’t want it to end since humans are a lot more interesting than angels of any sort, since angels are either intrinsically good or intrinsically bad and are therefore boring. You always know what to expect from an angel and the sameness of harps and clouds or fire and brimstones, while it might be nice for a while, isn’t really interesting in the long run. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much they can do about it since they must both follow their orders.

Saying more would give the plot away, but the charcters that pop up in the book are all very well done. From “Dog” the hound from hell to Agnes Nutter the prophet who foresaw the events, to the four horsemen of the Apocolypse, they’re all fun. You do have to realize that this book doesn’t take it seriously in any respect. I don’t honestly believe that the authors are trying to disrespect religion, although they would like to see it take itself less seriously. Although if you do opt to really think about the philosophical side of things, they raise some interesting questions. However, they leave it up to you as to whether you want to read for fun or want to get more out of it than that, which is a nice change to being preached at.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Robinson Crusoe

The actual book Robinson Crusoe was OK as far as stories go. Robinson defies his father’s wishes and goes off travelling. Because he defied his father, God punishes him by making all of his journeys difficult and dangerous but he survives with the help of kind people. Wherever he settles, he prospers, the first time being in the Brazils where he sets up a plantation, with the help of said kind people, that prospers and grows. Unfortunately for Rob, he feels like travelling and goes off again on an expedition to Africa to pick up slaves. It all goes wrong again and he winds up, as the only person to survive the voyage, on an island where he lives for the next 28 years before being rescued.

The tale itself is not bad, but the religious theme to it is overly dramatic and overly done. Defoe makes his point time and time and time again and it gets a little annoying after a while. There are also several incidents which, at least by today’s standards, directly contradict the moral of the story. The references to slavery are at best stomach churning as is the assumption that the white man is superior to the “savages” in every sense.

This gets worse in the stories following the first volume. The version I read tacked on his further adventures as if it were all one book. Robinson eventually leaves his island and the people who subsequently joined him and helped him to defeat the cannibals who occasionally came from the other islands to devour their victims. The further stories reveal that he makes no attempt to send help or ships to rescue them. They are basically left to themselves there, although life on the island is portrayed as being fairly good. When he eventually returns over 9 years later, he does bring provisions, but goes with no intention of getting the people off the island. Rather he brings more to help populate it, among them a priest who eventually stays there to Christianize the colony. His reception on the island is all rather sickening. Everyone seems to look up to him, the righteous Christian, as some sort of demi-God even though he left them there to their fate without sending help.

At this point the “story” starts to slide into a long religious dialogue between himself, the priest and the islanders, which frankly becomes quite boring. Between that and the continued references to Robinson as some sort of hero, the assumption that white man is obviously better than the “savages” and it’s references to slavery as an assumed right, I wasn’t able to stomach it any longer and gave it up. Had the tale been at least engaging, I would have continued, but I really had to force myself to stick with it even though I know the book simply reflects the views of the day. It’s almost odd how the book and its intentions are almost turned on their head in today’s society. Much of what Robinson says and does in the book would only serve to teach about ignorance today where it was actually meant to be a model to people at the time when it was written; the great exception to this being the core of religion, which is still widely followed in today’s society.

All in all, I wouldn’t recommend this as a good read, unless you look at it as a lesson in society of the time.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I’m finding this an incredibly difficult book to write about. Somehow the lack of any single dramatic event and the dilution of shock by direct reference to events which have not yet taken place seems to, on the one hand, remove suspense while heightening it on the other. Because of the nature of Henry’s condition, the reader often knows what’s going to happen before it actually does which in effect removes the suspense. It is the lack of details, such as specific time, place or exactly how it will happen is exactly what keeps the reader interested without rendering it necessary to anchor the story on one specific event, time or place. It could have happened anywhere, anytime, any place and still been as interesting as it was set in the modern world. It’s almost presented like a jigsaw puzzle. The pieces are all sorted onto a table, turned right side up and then wait until the puzzler puts them together in the right order. Once they are there, the story becomes whole, despite not delivering any surprises as to composition.

The structure of the story is basically the structure of Henry’s life as he knows it. Yes, he is living a linear life, yet much of his present is taken up with pieces of his past and future. He too is assembling the puzzle of his life. As he goes through it and more and more pieces are added, it makes more sense to his present self. It’s as though he is working the bits of his life into a whole person.

Claire is Henry’s support during his journey to puzzle himself together. Without her, his life would have lacked purpose and hold. He allowed himself to be wild in his youth because he already knew that Claire would be there for him at the right time. Had there not been a Claire, he probably would have continued on in a disjointed manner for the rest of his life. Claire is like the glue that will hold the puzzle together in the end. She keeps the pieces from flying apart as Henry manages to sort them into meaning. She holds the fort and picks up the pieces and puts them back on the table when they fall off. Without her, Henry would never have managed, or possibly even bothered to try and put the pieces together.

Unfortunately for Claire, once the puzzle is complete, she is shut out. Only one piece remained open for a very long time. It was like Claire was hanging on to that last piece of Henry’s puzzle so she wouldn’t ever have to clear the puzzle up and put it back in its box. That would have been letting go and she could never have done that. Only once her own life was virtually over could she accept that she had that one bit of unfinished business that she needed to take care of. The moment she had anticipated for so long had come at last and she saw Henry one last time. Even though it doesn’t seem like much of one, that was her reward for dealing with all she had gone through with both Henry and her daughter. It was her reward for being left behind time and time again and for helping pick up the pieces when they returned. She got to see Henry again. It wasn’t much and it wasn’t a life time, but it was more than many a widow ever receives even though she would heartily wish for it.

The story was an extremely sad one, yet it doesn’t leave the reader without hope. That hope comes in the form of Henry’s daughter, who, afflicted with the same disjointed life, seems to have improved and refined the art of time travelling to the point where it became endurable and nearly enjoyable. Where Henry certainly would have wished to be cured, Alba doesn’t seem to mind. It seems possible that every generation of traveller might improve to the point where they can control their travels completely and to where they are accepted into society and understood instead of being chased and condemned at every turn.