Wednesday, August 28, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (18 down, 82 to go)

Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird. ~ Atticus Finch to Jem

This is the second time I’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird and the only novel I’ve read by Harper Lee. The novel is southern gothic, told in the first-person narrative of Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout. Scout, is a six-year-old tomboy, who lives with her older brother Jem, and widowed father Atticus in 1930s Maycomb, Alabama.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved it, as I knew I would. I don’t recall precisely when I read this the first time and although I loved it then, I enjoyed it even more the second. Indeed, it is my second favorite novel thus far in my quest, and it isn’t a long shot that it will remain so. Regarding my favorite, The Lord of the Rings, I wrote: “I don’t call it the greatest or best novel I’ve read, because I have read a few – a few – that I think are greater literary achievements.” To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the few. It is not only well written and enjoyable, it is a book of profound importance.

There are so many themes; I scarce know where to start. Racial inequality and prejudice are paramount, but Lee somehow weaves such sickening subjects into a delightful tale. She blends it masterfully with themes of courage, compassion, integrity, tolerance, family relationships, dying traditions, coming of age, and more to be sure.

My literary desire to have a hero is well established by now, and To Kill a Mockingbird is filled with heroes: Atticus, Scout, Jem, Maudie, Calpurnia, Heck Tate, even Aunt Alexandra at times, and of course Boo Radley.

A bit of trivia: To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s first, last, and only novel. Perhaps she considered this writing business a bit too easy. Besides popular acclaim, it also won a Pulitzer Prize.

(Update to this review: “only novel” is no longer true, as Lee – or agent – published the previously written but not previously published prequel, Go Set a Watchmen, in July of 2015.)

I find Harper Lee’s progressive ideas all the more impressive given the time she wrote prior to 1960, and the era in which she grew up, 1930s. The story cannot be described as an autobiography, but there are clear autobiographical elements. Atticus is based on Lee’s father, while Scout and Jem are more loosely based on Lee and her brother. The most amusing character mapping is Dill who is based on Lee’s childhood friend Truman Capote. The young actor who played Dill in the movie, John Megna, is easily believable as a young Truman Capote.

I am somewhat reluctant to call To Kill a Mockingbird enjoyable. The gross miscarriage of justice is so maddeningly wicked, "enjoyable" does not seem quite right.

But, I think without injustice there can be no hero. So, I confess, I enjoyed it. There are too many tender moments of love, glorious acts of compassion, and triumphant displays of courage that I cannot deny it. A favorite moment, near the end, after Boo “comes out” he says to Scout:
Will you take me home?He almost whispered it, in the voice of a child afraid of the dark.I put my foot on the top step and stopped. I would lead him through our house, but I would never lead him home.Mr. Arthur, bend your arm down here, like that. That’s right sir.

Aunt Alexandra would have been proud, had she witnessed it. Scout was a lady. Not because she knew the proper southern etiquette, and not because Aunt or anyone expected it, but because she treated the odd, reclusive, man-child, Arthur (Boo) Radley with respect and dignity and saw to it that HE escorted HER.

Other Quotations:

Do you defend niggers Atticus? I asked him that evening.
Of course I do. Don’t say nigger, Scout, That’s common.
‘s what everybody at school says.
From now on it’ll be everybody less one…

It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived. ~ Scout

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. ~ Atticus to Jem

I want simply to tell you that there are some men in this world who were born to do our unpleasant jobs for us. Your father’s one of them. ~ Miss Maudie to Jem

A few more items of trivia, as they relate to the film. He never speaks in the film, and is only in it for about two minutes at the end, but Boo Radley is played by a very young Robert Duvall. And Gregory Peck’s grandson is named Harper, in honor of Harper Lee.

Film Renditions: 1962 starring Gregory Peck. A nearly perfect rendition. Peck deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor and the film won two others. It was wonderfully cast and superbly acted. Mary Badham as Scout and Phillip Alford as Jem are perfect. I thought the adult Scout narrator, Kim Stanley did a magnificent job of capturing southern grace and charm. And finally, I love the music, especially the melancholy score near the end, the night Boo comes out.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut (17 down, 83 to go)

or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death

I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.

This is the first time I've read Slaughterhouse-Five or Kurt Vonnegut. The novel is difficult to categorize. It may be science-fiction, or you might call it magical realism. It also has portions of historical fiction. It is decidedly satirical. It is set...well it is similarly difficult to describe the setting as it involves time travel and inter-galactic travel. A large portion of the story is set in World War II, Germany, Dresden to be precise. It is semi-autobiographical as Vonnegut was a P.O.W. and present during the bombing of Dresden. 

My rating: 3 1/2 of 5 stars

I have mixed emotions. This was certainly easy to read and Vonnegut has an aloof sense of humor that I find amusing. Mostly, I think Vonnegut has A.D.D., just as the main figure Billy Pilgrim.

To be more precise, and to quote: 
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

To describe what that means will be difficult in the few lines I feel inclined to allow. Billy, could, and did, travel in time seemingly randomly, from any one point in his life to another. A trait he learned, or perhaps perfected with the help of the Tralfamadorians, the alien race that kidnapped him and kept him in a zoo on their planet for some years. The Tralfamadorians concept of time was not linear. They saw all of time on a large continuum, and all of it was happening simultaneously and perpetually. 

I told you it would be difficult to describe. And I shan’t try beyond that.

Billy Pilgrim was, among other things, a chaplain’s assistant, i.e. non-combat soldier captured by the Germans near the end of WWII, and taken to a prison camp in Dresden Germany. He eventually witnesses the infamous allied bombing of Dresden.

The book is semi-autobiographical, emphasis on semi, as Vonnegut was a POW in Dresden, and witness to the firebombing of Dresden. He injects himself, in small roles into the fictional account told from Billy’s perspective. As far as I know, Vonnegut was never kidnapped by an alien race, but as my daughter likes to say...who can know these things.

In the first chapter, which is really a preface and not part of the story, Vonnegut attempts to describe the circumstances and reasons for writing Slaughterhouse-Five. When asked if it was to be an anti-war book, Vonnegut replied: "Yes, I guess". The person asking the question then stated that when he hears someone is writing an anti-war book, he asks them, "Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?"

I’ll have to remember that. And I give Vonnegut credit for including it.

I’m not sure Slaughterhouse-Five is truly anti-war anyway, which is really a redundant term. Is anyone pro-war? Vonnegut certainly hoped to show the horrors of war, and I think that is a worthwhile ambition from a writer and eye-witness.

There are other philosophical questions raised in the book, most notably the debate of free will vs fate. The Tralfamadorians are of course fatalists. They know all history, past, present, and future and are powerless to change it. They even know that a Tralfamadorian experiment will destroy the universe one day. It cannot be helped, so they don’t pay attention to it in the non-linear continuum they view, and choose instead to simply focus on more pleasant things.

The novel is satire of course, so I am not quite clear if Vonnegut is fatalist or free-will. 

I don’t even get the sense, as I’ve said already, that he is truly anti-war, at least no more than any rational human being must be. I sense a sincere and deep sadness by Vonnegut, one that I think he bears admirably through his writing. I think he was convinced of the senselessness of the allied fire-bombing of Dresden. You can certainly make a case that it was neither militarily necessary, nor proportionate. However, Vonnegut clearly bought into a popular belief of the time, one that I was taught in High School, that the allied powers, killed more civilians (from 135,000 up to half a million) in the bombing of Dresden than we did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. I don’t claim to be the end of all knowledge on the subject, but the consensus today, even by a city of Dresden study estimate, it was no more than 25,000. So it goes.

Sorry, inside joke there. Whenever Vonnegut spoke of death, mortality, or dying, he concluded with the phrase, so it goes. 25,000 is terrible in its own right.

At any rate, as one who has not witnessed the horrors of war, not very close at least, and thank you Lord, I’d say the novel was both enlightening and interesting. I’d also say that even though I am probably not aligned with Vonnegut politically, I rather like him. He seems genuine if nothing else, and that seems to be a dying quality these days. So it goes.


I've visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will. ~ Unnamed Tralfamadorian

Quotation by Kurt Vonnegut, not in the Novel, but about the bombing of Dresden.  

The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it. I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in.

Film Rendition: 1972 version starring Michael Sacks as Billy, and a bunch of other actors you haven't heard of. It was a decent portrayal of a story that would be hard to tell in film. Read the book, skip the movie.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (16 down, 84 to go) not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.

The Lord of the Rings is a third-person narrative, epic fantasy, set in Middle Earth, inhabited by elves, dwarfs, mortal men, wizards, dragons, other nasty beasts, and of course hobbits. The Hobbit is prequel to LOTR, is a bit less epic, a bit more whimsical, and tells the tale to set the stage for the great tale - the tale of The One Ring of Power.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Those of you who know me, know this will be a review of glowing praise. Apart from the Bible, there is nothing I have re-read more than The Lord of the Rings. It a trilogy, but one story and “The List” counts it as one. I first read LOTR when I was 10, thanks to my sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Banks. She will forever be my favorite teacher and LOTR will always be my favorite novel. I haven’t kept track, but I know this was at least my sixth reading and likely not the last. In my opinion, you simply cannot read LOTR without first reading The Hobbit, so I re-read that again as well and this review covers both.

Simply put, LOTR is the most enjoyable thing I’ve ever read. I don’t call it the greatest or best novel I’ve read, because I have read a few – a few – that I think are greater literary achievements. But again, nothing more enjoyable. I wish I could unread it, have my memory purged, and read it again anew.

So why do I love it so much? Well, I'd rather not get too analytical; it is pure escape and an epic contest between good and evil. The heroes, Bilbo, Aragorn, Gandalf, Sam, Frodo, et al have their flaws, but are still clearly heroes. There are lesser villains such as Smeagol and Saruman. You wish for their defeat, perhaps even destruction, but you also find them pitiable. One of my favorite characters, Boromir, is the most ambiguous. Is he a hero or villain? A hero in my opinion, though misguided and beguiled by the evil power of the ring. Denethor is somewhat the same. Boromir’s brother Faramir however, is magnificently noble and wise, if somewhat less mighty. THE Villain though, is as vile as can be.

LOTR is superbly written. There are passages of dialogue that made me laugh out loud, literally, and others that brought tears to my eyes, literally. There is narrative so terrifying that I slept, or more precisely lay awake with the light on, when I was 10 of course, not this most recent reading. The dialogue between Faramir and Eowyn when they are discovering their love for one another is beautiful beyond my ability to describe. There is also a delightful conversation between Gimli the dwarf and Eomer the mortal man and warrior of Rohan. When Gimli and Eomer first meet, it is tense and dangerous, neither sure if the other should be counted friend or foe. They eventually agree they fight the same enemy but there is still tension, including a disagreement about the Lady Galadriel, whether she is good or evil. Gimli challenges that if Eomer ever actually meets Galadriel, and does not profess her to be the most beautiful and virtuous creature in middle earth, the two will be obliged to fight in mortal combat. Eomer does indeed finally meet Galadriel, but he also meets the Lady Arwen, who he judges of equal goodness, but slightly greater beauty.

And before he went to his rest he (Eomer) sent for Gimli the Dwarf, and he said to him: "Gimli Gloin's son, have you your axe ready?"
"Nay, lord," said Gimli, "but I can speedily fetch it, if there be need." 

"You shall judge" said Eomer, "For there are certain rash words concerning the Lady in the Golden Wood that lie still between us. And now I have seen her with my eyes."

"Well, lord," said Gimli, "and what say you now?"

"Alas," said Eomer, "I will not say that she is the fairest lady that lives."

"Then I must go for my axe", said Gimli.

"But first I will plead this excuse", said Eomer, "Had I seen her in other company, I would have said all that you could wish. But now I will put Queen Arwen Evenstar first, and I am ready to do battle on my own part with any who deny me. Shall I call for my sword?"

Then Gimli bowed low. "Nay, you are excused for my part, lord", he said, "You have chosen the Evening; but my love is given to the Morning."

Some have speculated that LOTR is an allegory, which seems to make sense. Tolkien was a good friend of C.S. Lewis who is best known for his classic allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There are elements in the LOTR that certainly seem allegorical. The Eagles for instance, that always show up near the end of epic battles to save the day. Surely the Englishman Tolkien intended the Eagles to represent America. However, the allegory theory falls apart on one very important point: Tolkien stated unequivocally that it was not an allegory. I have to believe the author.

I could go on and on, and show what a geek I am, but I’ll stop. I loved it. If you haven’t read it you should.

Other Quotations:

If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. But sad or merry, I must leave it now. Farewell. ~ Thorin Oakenshield

Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens. ~ Gimili the Dwarf

What? In riddles? No! For I was talking aloud to myself. A habit of the old: they choose the wisest person present to speak to: the long explanations needed by the young are wearying. ~ Gandalph

Don't trust your head, Samwise, it is not the best part of you. ~ Sam

We who have lived long under the Shadow may surely listen to echoes from a land untroubled by it. ~ Denethor, Steward of Gondor

Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? ~ Sam

And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears a clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in thought out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness.

Cover Art: The 1965 paperback versions pictured above are the first American paperback editions, and the first I read - and yes, I still have them. These are scans of my covers. The artwork is by Barbara Remington and when the three books are put together it forms a mural, a schema for the story. I once had a very large poster depicting the mural, but sigh - that I no longer have.

Film Renditions: No comment on earlier film renderings. Peter Jackson’s masterpiece was, well…I’ve already shown my hand. I thought it was marvelous. I am glad a Tolkien fan directed the films. Jackson did a marvelous job. In my opinion he was true to the novel. I know there were a few omissions and a few departures. I think the omissions were excusable, and the departures understandable. The only departure that I have real issue with is the portrayal of Faramir. Faramir is one of the most truly noble, humble, good, kind, and valiant characters in the book. And though I feel strongly about the injustice done him in the film, a single major issue in over 11 hours (extended edition) is pretty good, so I’ll give Jackson a pass. The Hobbit films...not so much, though Martin Freeman was perfect as Bilbo.