Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Classic Project Extras: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is arguably one of the great American novels. The reason this book wasn't on my Classic Project list from the beginning is that I've already read it. Like most people my age, I read it in school, but I picked it up again as inspiration for my new novel which will be part of the "Southern Literature" genre that Harper Lee's masterpiece exemplifies.

So here's a Classics Project Extra of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

When I read this in my early teens, I fell in love. Harper Lee has both a mastery of the language and the ability to tell moving stories. But in rereading this as an adult, there was a lot I missed in the first reading.

Even though Scout, the main character, is younger than I was when I read the book, as a reader I related more to her point of view and saw the world through her eyes. Given my age and the fact that it is written in first person, that's understandable. But now, as an adult, it's fascinating to see what I missed. I had little to no understanding of most of the adults' true motivations or the full depth of material. I missed most of the winks and nods that Harper Lee deftly wove in and that Scout, too, missed entirely.

One thing that struck me on this read-through (that the first time I accepted without question) was the casualness with which Scout views oppression. I grew up in a small Southern town that still had de facto segregation, so Scout's world wasn't too far off from my own. Now, with a decade of detachment from that small town, the institutionalized racism is shocking and intense. Before, much like Scout, I understood that that was just the way things were. Now it colored my reading with a darker hue.

Which brings me to perhaps the crux of the book.

Most people see To Kill a Mockingbird as Harper Lee's love letter to her father, and as a daughter of a terribly impressive and admirable man, I empathize with that facet of the novel, but for me there is a much more pressing issue presented.


In the book, Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is the defense attorney for a black man named Tom Robinson who is accused of raping a white woman. Her father defends his client despite the town's condemnation. He demonstrates the innocence - or at the very least the reasonable doubt of guilt - of his client, but the jury still finds the man guilty.

This is shown as a very small victory because the jury took so long to decide the defendant's fate. The book shows the hard struggle and sometimes inevitable defeat of the fight for equality, and I think that is all many readers take away from the trial.

Near the end of the book there is an incident where a recluse known as Boo Radley kills a man to protect Scout and her brother. Atticus and the Sheriff decide not to report the circumstances of the death because they don't want to force Boo Radley into the spotlight. Atticus tells Scout that forcing him into court would be the same as killing a mockingbird - destroying something precious that doesn't hurt anyone. So the death is reported as an accident and Boo Radley's name goes unmentioned.

Now I don't disagree with either of these lessons. 1) That even if you know you're going to lose, there are some fights worth fighting. 2) That the weak need to be protected for their own good but also for the good of the protectors.

What struck me was the intense juxtaposition between these two incidents. Tom Robinson, a black man, was forced to go to trial and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. Boo Radley, a white man, actually killed a man, and - though it was obviously in the defense of children - the truth is again hidden but this time to his benefit.

I'm still struggling to process how very wrong this situation is. Part of me truly understands Atticus and the Sheriff not wanting to get Boo involved, but at the same time this compromise of truth is tainted by the white privilege that Boo enjoys. Would the sheriff have been so understanding if a black man had killed a white man in defense of black children? Would Atticus? I would very much like to think they would, but I can't help but feel they wouldn't.

I know this makes the characters flawed and real, but if feels like the book doesn't even see extreme wrongness of the situation. Scout certainly doesn't and I really can't tell if Harper Lee did. The disparity and the lack of awareness illustrates the problem with institutionalized racism. Even the "progressive" characters fall easily into the established system of privilege and oppression.

I will read this book again as a parent and I will enjoy it as I did this time and the time before. As a child, I thought Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird was complex and nuanced. As an adult, I find it even more so and I have solid faith that each time I read it, I will find new, fascinating, and sometimes disturbing facets. And that's pretty much the ultimate compliment for any book.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Classics Project: The Hunt for Red October

Life has been kind of crazy lately. I'm getting ready to move into a new place and I've started a new job. I actually finished reading this book a while ago, but never got around to writing the review, so please forgive its lateness.

The Classics Project presents The Hunt for Red October by Tom Clancy.

I selected this book to read next because I was so affected by The Color Purple that I needed something completely different. In a way, I had quite high expectations for Mr. Clancy because all through my childhood, I can remember my dad in his recliner, a thick Tom Clancy book in his hands. And, still through childhood's lens, I expected that anything my father loved, I would love.

Needless to say, the reality was completely different.

It's not that I disliked The Hunt for Red October, the famously exciting Cold War submarine exploit, it's just that it came nowhere near my expectations.

First off, Clancy's obsession with military minutiae was at best uninteresting and often tedious. For people who have an especial fascination with all things military, this book would be rich and satisfying, but for me, it fell flat. I really don't feel the need to narratively trace every step involved in satellite communication or the exact measurements of each switch and dial in a submarine.

This compulsion of Clancy's was made doubly dull by the fact that all of the technology in his book that is presented as so high tech is nearly thirty years old. I have a thorough understanding of modern technology that surpasses anything presented in this book. I understand that the book is limited by its time. It was published in 1984, and at the time things like wireless communication were exciting and new. Sadly, that excitement doesn't hold up through the years.

Which brings me to another point. The anachronistic Cold War attitude of the book was jarring for someone who was born in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell. I did not grow up with the shadow of an imminent nuclear war or the fanatical patriotism that was so prevalent in the 1980s. Clancy takes every chance to declare how wonderful America and Freedom and "God and Country" are. He even takes especial pains to point out that Captain Ramius, the captain of the Soviet submarine, is not truly Russian because his mother was Lithuanian. You know ... so we can still cheer for him, because if he was Russian, how could any reader empathize? This narrow, black and white view of a very complex time comes off as pure propaganda and leaves a false, treacly impression in my mind.

From a purely analytical perspective, as a fellow author, I found Clancy's structure of the book weak. Jack Ryan is supposedly the protagonist of The Hunt for Red October, but I only know that because I've been told. I would've guessed that it was the more interesting character, Soviet captain Marko Ramius. The lack of depth in his protagonist is probably intrinsically connected to the book's format. Clancy jumps from viewpoint to viewpoint, giving the reader scenes from the POVs of all kinds of characters all over the Atlantic. While this does afford the reader a unique, big-picture view of the plot, it severely limits any character development.

Ultimately, there were several very thrilling scenes. Clancy can certainly amp up the excitement when he wants to, but thanks to the lack of interesting characters, the preponderance of military trivialities, and the anachronistic world view, I was left unsatisfied with The Hunt for Red October.

I think next time I'll just stick with the movie.