A Conjuring of Light

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Guys.  Guys.  GUYS.

It’s Tuesday, February 21st.

Today was the release date for V.E. Schwab’s final installment of the Darker Shade of Magic trilogy, A Conjuring of Light.

And right now, I’m having a hard time figuring out what to say about this book.

A Darker Shade of Magic is a delightful, fantastical romp.

A Gathering of Shadows is adventurous and action-packed and everything exciting I wanted in a story.

A Conjuring of Light is perfection.

I’ll admit, after the cliff-hanger of Gathering, I wasn’t sure what would happen in Conjuring.  I had suspicions, of course — I’d be a pretty terrible English major if I didn’t go through my catalogue of plot devices and twists while I’m reading a book — but I didn’t know how it would all play out.

And you know what?  I’m glad I didn’t guess every twist that happened.

The events of the first fifty pages or so was what I expected from the first probably third of the book, but that’s what makes it so wonderful.  The characters and their decisions are complex, and this is not a fairy tale that can be pared down to an easy-to-digest adventure.  Instead, there are more steps to defeating evil than simply joining together a trio of unlikely heroes and letting their desire for good to win.  There are betrayals and love and acts of compassion and acts of violence.  There are mysteries that can be solved, and mysteries that shouldn’t be.

And it all comes together in this novel.

Although I’ve been known to cry at a lot of things, especially movies, books take a lot to make me actually tear up.  I’ll make noises of distress or joy, and sometimes I’ll get a little tight-chested.  Harry Potter makes me weep like a child, pretty much regardless of which book I’m reading.  Tell the Wolves I’m Home brought me to heaving sobs that I couldn’t shake for a good five minutes.

Conjuring didn’t make me sob, didn’t bring tears streaming down my face, but the last twenty pages were so perfectly aligned to what I hoped would happen, what I felt would be right in the course of the plot, that I couldn’t help tearing up.

There’s a line in Darker from Lila (who is one of the most fantastically badass characters, male or female, that I’ve had the pleasure to read) that I love:

“I’m not going to die,” she said.  “Not till I’ve seen it.”

“Seen what?”

Her smile widened.  “Everything.”

In a series of books that I began based on the beauty of the cover and the promise of magical Londons, I feel that Schwab has given me a whole world into which I can dive again and again and the world she created exists as truly as Middle Earth and Hogwarts and Narnia.  It’s gorgeously done, and I feel, at the end of Conjuring, as though I have seen everything.

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A Gathering of Shadows

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Guys.  Guys.

I did it.

I finally read it because A Conjuring of Light comes out on Tuesday.

GUYS.

I’m pretty sure this is the best fantasy to be written in the post-Harry Potter world.

I’m pretty sure it’s ranking among my all-time favorite series.

Victoria (V.E.) Schwab has quickly become one of my favorite contemporary writers because the way she writes is so natural and so utterly magical.  When I read A Darker Shade of Magic last year, it was (being perfectly honest) because I thought the cover was cool.  And the description sounded okay.  And I’m a huge fan of London, so I’m willing to give most anything featuring my favorite city in the world a try.  And plus, this had multiple Londons.

But I was sold when I discovered Kell had a magic coat.

I know, it’s stupid, but it’s that kind of detail that makes me love Schwab’s writing.  Kell, as a traveler between different worlds, must fit in amongst the dwellers of Grey London, White London, and his own Red London.  So it’s fitting that he has a magic coat that can transform to suit his location.  And the fact that it works by him turning it inside out — I fell in love.  In a way, it reminds me of Doctor Strange’s Cloak of Levitation, not that it becomes a character, but that it helps the character develop in astonishing ways.

Seriously, I was sold at a magic coat and I read that book in two sittings.  I couldn’t escape the world Schwab created and I didn’t want to.  But the trouble was that I found this book when the second had just come out and the third was on the horizon.  So I put A Gathering of Shadows aside and promised I’d read it sometime, but knowing I wouldn’t touch it until the third was in sight.

Then there was a date for A Conjuring of Light.  And still I waited.

And then, yesterday, I started Gathering because this Tuesday the third and final book will find its way into my hot little hands and I will spend all day reading it because I want to get sucked into Kell’s Londons again.

It’s a hell of a cure for the book hangover I was left with after The Once and Future King.

In Darker Shade, you tumble headfirst into a world in which Kell is one of the most gifted magicians in Red London and one of the smugglers of goods into Grey London while he travels to deliver royal messages.  But then a magic that shouldn’t exist starts making its presence known, and Kell, along with Lila, a girl from Grey London, must find a way to protect his home from a London that shouldn’t exist.

And that’s putting it really terribly because it’s astonishing and exciting and full of mystery and badass women and handsome princes and lost cities and found cities and everything you could wish for in a fantasy novel.

Gathering is an extension of the true magic of Darker Shade.  Kell is facing his demons alongside his princely brother, Rhy, and Lila has joined up with… let’s say “privateers,” only because they have letters of marque.  Allegedly.  And everyone is going to come together again because it’s time for the Essen Tasch, the Elemental Games.  (Think March Madness but with magicians and three nations who all want to show off their skills.)  Trouble is, that dark magic that threatens everything Kell loves hasn’t exactly disappeared…

And dude.  So good.

There’s something for everyone: magic, pirates, romance, disguises, battles, constructive angst, brotherly love, brotherly hate, twists and turns and everything in between.

I really, seriously, honestly cannot recommend this enough.  It’s because of the first book that I picked up her teen book This Savage Song (which was also AMAZING) and the reason her novel Vicious is also on my list of “must reads.”  But this second book is the reason I will read anything she writes, because it cements my belief that she weaves magic in her words, and it’s been a long time since I’ve read a book like that.

I CAN’T WAIT FOR TUESDAY!!!

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“I have learned, and been happy.”

Okay, so I just finished T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.  And oh.  My.  Gosh.  SO GOOD.

I think I’m probably the only person who took the classes I did and somehow never read this.  And when I mentioned I hadn’t read it to my dad and my sister, they both responded with

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And now I see why.  It’s amazing.  And I seriously can’t believe that, as much as I love Arthurian legend and mythology and all of that, I’ve never tried it.  But here are four reasons why it’s pretty much the best.

  1. Book One: The Sword in the Stone – Merlyn, Archimedes, young Arthur, adventures and magic and animals… perfection.
  2. Book Two: The Queen of Air and Darkness – Arthur on the throne, family drama, intrigue and betrayal and battles and Morgause… intense.
  3. Book Three: The Ill-Made Knight – Lancelot and Guenever and quests and chivalry and even though you know what’s going to happen and you really want to hate the characters that are hurting each other you can’t because they’re human and you understand what they’re going through… amazing.
  4. Book Four: The Candle in the Wind – The end of it all, Mordred and justice and politics… devastating.  Mainly because it’s the end.

I’m not going to say this was the easiest book I’ve read, but it’s the most fun I’ve had in a while.  Mainly because the legends I thought I remembered were reimagined, expanded, and made better than I recalled.

Also, while I think Book One was my favorite because it was so magical, the transition to the bleak final book makes me think of Harry Potter.  When I reread Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, I’m caught up in the magic and the wonder of Harry discovering magic and Hogwarts, meeting Ron and Hermione and Hagrid and even Malfoy, the horror of finding Voldemort and the knowledge that he will always be there.  But when I keep reading the rest of the series, I’m reminded that, as Harry ages, his challenges become less easy to meet, his world more cemented in reality.

In The Once and Future King, Arthur follows the same course.  Book One is dedicated to his lessons with Merlyn and the magic of knowing that this boy is destined to be a king makes everything simultaneously fun and tragic.  By Book Two, Arthur is a young king and you can’t help but sympathize with his struggles as he tries to unite his country (and the sons of Morgause are so hard to hate when you think about how twisted their upbringing is…).  Books Three and Four were hard to get through, only because I knew how the legend ends and characters like Lancelot and Guenever (whom I have always disliked) became so human it was difficult to hate them.  Real life is complicated and people are more than good or evil, and I think that is the greatest strength of this novel is White’s ability to not only develop characters in a sympathetic and realistic manner, but also his insertions of a modern perspective lend reminders of why we should keep reading this book.

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Two of my favorite quotes were from Book One, and I share them now as a reason to pick this book up.

First, when Kay is going to be knighted and Merlyn tells Arthur that his lessons are at an end.  The Wart’s simple answer just about brought me to tears.

“By the way,” added the magician, stopping in the middle of his spell, “there is one thing I ought to tell you.  This is the last time I shall be able to turn you into anything. All the magic for that sort of thing has been used up, and this will be the end of your education.  When Kay has been knighted my labours will be over.  You will have to go away then, to be his squire in the wide world, and I shall go elsewhere.  Do you think you have learned anything?”

“I have learned, and been happy.”

Second, when Wart is about to pull the sword from the stone (spoiler: he succeeds) and all of the animals with whom he has spent time in his education come together in love, cheering for his success.  Throughout the whole book, love is such an important concept, and to have such a humble example (they are the animal friends of a child, after all) still makes me cry.

They loomed round the church wall, the lovers and helpers of the Wart, and they all spoke solemnly in turn.  Some of them had come from banners in the church, where they were painted in heraldry, some from the waters and the sky and the fields about — but all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love.  Wart felt his power grow.

So when you’re in the mood for an Arthurian epic, this is the one I’d nudge your way.  Just be prepared to enter the world of Arthur and not want to escape any time soon.

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…One Year Later…

It’s hard to believe I’ve been away from this blog for a year.  Like, an entire year.  And when I say “hard to believe,” what I mean is “SO SO SO SO SO embarrassing.”  I thought I would keep up with reviews and insight and blah blah blah.

We see how that turned out.

So, as a recap of the last 12 months (!!!!)…

Personal life: not much has changed, and everything has changed.  Finished the MA program, so I’m officially a Master of Literature, which is pretty cool.  Other personal things have happened, but frankly nobody cares about that, so let’s just say that things have broken and things have been repaired and somewhere along the line I just kept going.

Professional Life: Am currently on the (halfhearted) search for a new job — have already received one rejection within 48 hours of submitting my application, which was a blow to the ego.  Onwards and upwards, though, right?

Reading Life: BUSY.  My last update here (ugh, it makes me so sad that I’ve been such a lousy blogger… this is why I’ll never get famous for my online presence) was about how much I’d read so far in my Reading Challenge 2016.  I was pretty proud of myself for being at about 15/63.  Um… I completed the challenge, no sweat.  According to Goodreads, I read 121 books last year.  To be fair, there were some graphic novels thrown in (all of Saga over the course of, like, three days and it was AMAZING), and some books were really short and fluffy, but I also read all of the Hogarth Shakespeare books that have come out so far, along with very popular picks (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Girl on the Train, the Miss Peregrine series).  My greatest success, however, was the completion of Ron Chernow’s incredible biography of Alexander Hamilton.  Yeah.  I read that.  And I was, and still am, very proud of myself for it.

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Seriously, I read so many amazing books last year, I’ve got to give a list of my favorites (and one quick sentence of why they’re my favorites) from the 2016 challenge.

 

cover-jpg-rendition-460-707The Shepherd’s Life and The Shepherd’s View, James Rebanks — Beautifully written books about the life of a shepherd in the Lake District; The Shepherd’s Life is nearly all prose, divided up by season and graced by the occasional picture, while The Shepherd’s View is a collection of photographs of a shepherd’s life with some stories attached — both are stunning.

 

The Miss Peregrine Series, Ransom Riggs — I mean, come on.  Read the books and see why I love them.  But don’t watch the movie and expect it to live up to anything the books created.

For the Glory, Duncan Hamilton — A lovely biography of Eric Liddell, the English Olympic runner made famous in Chariots of Fire — it focuses more on his life beyond the sport, but ties it all together with his love of running

22055262A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E. Schwab — THIS IS MY FAVORITE FANTASY BOOK OF THE LAST SEVERAL YEARS.  Like, right up there with Harry Potter, no joke.  I started on a whim late one night because I liked the cover and was housesitting and I ended up staying up past probably 3 a.m. to finish because it’s so much fun.  And no, I haven’t read the second one yet (A Gathering of Shadows) because the third one (A Conjuring of Light) comes out later this month.  And I know I’m going to go through major withdrawals if I have too much of a gap between them.

A Wild Sheep Chase, Haruki Murakami  — Recommended by a dear coworker, this is fun and mysterious and a perfect introduction to Murakami — I definitely want to read more of him because of this.

 

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J.K. Rowling — I don’t care if the format made people hate this, they’re wrong.  It’s charming and magical and I freaking love Scorpius Malfoy.  Period.

163560Commonwealth, Ann Patchett — If you read The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and haven’t read Commonwealth, get on it.  The Nest was fun, but the story of a dysfunctional family is told so much better in Commonwealth, mainly because Ann Patchett is an incredible writer and has written enough that you can see the difference in the craft itself.  SO SO SO GOOD.

The Gentleman, Forrest Leo — Hilarious Victorian-era novel about a man who sells his wife to the devil and must adventure to save her — but with some twists along the way.  They sell it as a “Wodehouse/Monty Python” style novel, and they’re right.  Bertie Wooster would be proud of Lionel Savage.

Walking the Nile, Levison Wood — This man is a British Indiana Jones, no joke.  He’s wicked cool, smart, and funny, and his adventure to walk the length of the Nile is incredible.  Also, it’s available in paperback.

Saga Volumes 1-6, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples — Seriously, just read these booksthe_inquisitors_tale_cover.

The Inquisitor’s Tale, Adam Gidwitz — Cute, adventurous, thoughtful — it’s a great book for 10 and up.  Set in the 13th century, three children go on a quest to save copies of the Talmud from destruction in France, and they’re accompanied by a holy dog.  It has the flavors of Canterbury Tales, but with the magic and joy of a children’s book.

Furiously Happy, Jenny Lawson — Funny and touching book about Jenny Lawson’s struggles with mental illness — but even when you know you shouldn’t be laughing, she makes you find the lighter side of the situation.

Yes Please, Amy Poehler — FOR THE LOVE OF HUMANITY, READ THIS.  Amy Poehler is so funny and so smart and so inspiring and I just love it.

My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell — Charming book about Gerry’s life on Corfu and his discovery of his love of animals.  It’s the basis for the PBS series The Durrells in Corfu and it’s utterly delightful.  Plus, Durrell wrote lots of books about his adventures with animals, so if you like this one, there’s more.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness — Heartbreakingly beautiful.  Just read it — it’ll take you, like, two hours.  And you’ll weep.

The View from the Cheap Seats, Neil Gaiman — Neil Gaiman’s collection of nonfictions is enchanting.  Pick it up and read however much, then take a break and read one of his novels, then come back.  Or you can do adult things, like laundry and cooking and your job, before you return to another piece.  He is the man.

Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow — If you’re ready to commit to a seriously intense historical book, this is the one.  Chernow is thorough but not boring, and he brings the Revolution era to life.  I liked Hamilton so much that this year I’m going to read Washington because I trust Chernow’s writing.  Even though it’s another 900 pages.  You better be good, Ron.  (Don’t worry.  I trust you.  Really.)

Still Life, Louise Penny — A great first mystery set in a quaint Canadian village.  Gamache is a lot like Poirot, and Penny is excellent at crafting the mystery and the inhabitants of the village, and you can’t help but want to continue with the series.

Three Dark Crowns, Kendare Blake — Probably my most pleasant surprise from 2016, this teen novel is the first in a series and follows three sisters in a land where only one of them will survive to become queen.  There’s some romance and some teen clichés, but it’s fun and exciting and I’m actually curious about the next installment.  And that’s saying a lot, considering how few teen books I actually get through in a year.

So much for writing a sentence about each.  Sorry.  This is what happens when I’m away for a year!  I’m sure after wading through that flood of words you want to hear an update on this year.  Guess what?  Here it comes!

Reading Challenge 2017

So far I’ve gotten 22 books finished, not all of which will be a part of my official Reading Challenge log.  And, once again, I’ve read some graphic novels, which I count in numbers but not as real accomplishments because I usually devour them in a sitting.  What books have I gotten through so far, you may ask?  Good question.  Here are some highlights.

Thrill Me, Benjamin Percy — An amazing collection of essays on writing.  He’s funny and smart and full of pop culture references, which makes it more fun.


51lfrgkbh4l-_sx329_bo1204203200_Reality Is Not What It Seems
, Carlo Rovelli — From the man whose Seven Brief Lessons on Physics was so perfectly charming, this book was actually what he wrote first and is a longer explanation of physics.  I have nearly no brain for science, but I understood a lot of what Rovelli explained, and it helps that he is an expert writer.  You don’t have to be a physicist to enjoy either of his books.

This Savage Song, V.E. Schwab — I wanted to read this because it’s Schwab and I love her from the one other book I’ve read of hers.  Again, I stayed up way later than intended to finish because WOW.  It’s an older teen novel about monsters and destruction and love and it’s, like, freaking fantastic. I’m only irritated that the second book isn’t out yet because I just want to hide away and read it.  Can I also point out that I love that this “series” (The Monsters of Verity) is only going to be the two books?  That’s such a nice change from the usual teen series.  YOU GO, VICTORIA!

I Hate Everyone, Except You, Clinton Kelly — Yes, the What Not to Wear guy.  His essays are funny and sassy and even inspiring.  It just made me love him even more than I did when he was on TLC.

Home of the Brave, Katharine Applegate — Beautiful young reader book told in poetry, it’s the story of a boy from Sudan who comes to America and is faced with the challenges of being an immigrant in the land of the free.  Even though it’s a quick read, it sticks with you.

9781101904169Rogue Heroes, Ben Macintyre — I love Macintyre.  I love every book he’s done.  This one is a little different because it’s not about one specific person or operation, but rather about the creation of the SAS, one of Britain’s most elite military groups.  The first half is full of their adventures as desert pirates, and the second half becomes much darker as the men, who have already been involved in the war for so long, come to Europe and face horrors beyond what they saw in Africa.  So well written, and really an incredible story.

Ready Player One, Ernest Cline — I was disappointed in how little development seemed to take place, but I enjoyed the adventure of a video game addict on the hunt for an Easter egg.  It’s the kind of book that had moments of clarity, but is mostly a good pick for teenage boys (sorry, boys!).  I would be interested to see if the movie that’s due out sometime soon will make it more fun.

Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank — I don’t care what side of American politics you fall on, you should read this.  You want to know how the election of 2016 came to the conclusion it did?  Yeah, Frank tells you.  And the crazy thing is, this book was out long before November 2016.  It’s like nobody cracked it open and thought he had some good points.  Which he does.

Walking the Himalayas, Levison Wood — The next adventure installment of our hero of the Nile.  Wood’s books are meant to accompany the documentaries aired in the UK (and I think on Discovery Channel at some point), but the books on their own are both great.  Himalayas is a little more focused on the people he meets than the places, I think largely because he’s in more populated areas, but it’s still amazing.  And the things he goes through to achieve his goal is just unbelievable.  Great adventure read.

Dare to Be Kind, Lizzie Velasquez — A lovely book from a wonderful person (it comes out in June).  Lizzie’s story is often difficult, but her encouragement to be kind is something I think we should all be aware of.  There were moments when I was waiting for a more explicit connection to kindness in her stories, but it’s still well worth the read if you get a chance.

I’m Your Biggest Fan, Kate Coyne — Funny collection of Coyne’s (mis)adventures as a celebrity journalist.  Some stories are cringe-worthy, some sweet, all fun to read.  It’s kind of my guilty pleasure book so far.

the princess saves herself in this one, amanda lovelace — A wonderful collection of poetry told through four sections (princess, damsel, queen, you).  I say it’s a must-read for women between 18-30, and probably lots of people outside that demographic should read it, too.  Because it’s just a good collection.  And it comes out next week!

Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman — PERFECTION.  I love mythology, I love Gaiman, and the combination is heavenly.  He chooses great myths to tie together in a loose kind of novel, but manages to keep the humor and the complexity of a mythology together.  And it just came out today!

Whew.

If any of the books I’ve mentioned sound good to you (and I hope at least one of them does), be sure to ask about them at your local indie.

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The gorgeous edition I’m reading – part of the Penguin Galaxy collection.

This post is now getting close to the unmanageable length, so I’m going to try to wrap up quickly.  (If you’ve read this far, I’m sorry.  If you haven’t, you probably made a good decision.)  My goal this year is to be better about updating, so we’ll see how that works.  I also hope to stretch myself a little further in this reading challenge, because that’s what made last year’s so much fun.

I’m working on The Once and Future King (which I am so enjoying) and a few other little ones, so hopefully at some point I’ll have a reason to post again.  Until then, allow me to leave you with a quote from the forever-fantastic Terry Pratchett:

“If you have enough book space, I don’t want to talk to you.”

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Another Update

I feel like I’ve been making some serious progress on this Reading Challenge deal – although my thesis is still relatively un-done, but that’s okay… I still have two weeks to get a full draft of at least 80 pages completed… and I already have about 15… so that’s fine…

So, the update.  I’ve read:

  • something aloud to someone else (The Somethingosaur by Tony Mitton to my nephew, and then niece)
  • a middle grade novel (Pax by Sara Pennypacker)
  • a National Book Award Winner (Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me)
  • a book about religion (C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters)
  • a 20th century classic (The Color Purple, which was also Emma Watson’s bookclub pick for February)
  • a book set in my home state (The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mackenzie)
  • a book translated into English (Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue)

And it’s about these last two that I just want to take a moment.

See, on Goodreads, you can only give full stars.  Which is great on one hand and terrible on another.  Because these two books deserved (in my opinion) 3.5 stars.  So I rounded down and gave them both 3.  Giving a book 4 stars means I can confidently recommend it to everyone I know (that would be interested).  Giving a book 3 stars means I enjoyed it all right, but wouldn’t go out of my way to convince someone it’s the best book in the world.

The Portable Veblen is a strange book that takes place mostly in Paolo Alto and follows Veblen and her boyfriend-turned-fiance as they try to navigate crazy families and workplaces and what makes them what they are.  And it’s… fine…?  I think I enjoyed it.  But that’s the trouble.  After 100 pages, I thought I liked it.  At 200, I didn’t think I did.  At 300, I was pretty sure I didn’t like it, but I only had a little over 100 to go, so I finished.  And I think I liked it at the end.  The best part of the whole novel is the squirrel that Veblen talks(?) to that eventually gets a chapter of his own.  I told you it was strange.

It’s just a tough book to find a way to sell to someone.  Like, I’m really grateful I borrowed it instead of buying it because I don’t like it enough to pay $$$ for it.  But I’m glad I read it.  I think.  It’s just a little too off-center for me.  (There’s a reason I like my writers old and dead.)

Enrigue’s Sudden Death is, like Veblen, tough to sell, but I think I enjoyed it more.  It’s completely bizarre.  Like, seriously, try to read any reviews of it and people say it’s riveting, it’s great, it’s intellectual, it’s brilliant.  I found it strange and kind of great.  But it’s for a special type of person that I don’t think would appreciate the completely different nature of the work.  Basically, Caravaggio (yes, that Caravaggio) is playing a tennis match against a Spaniard and they’re going to “sudden death.”  But in between points, you get transported around time and continents, hearing a story about Hernán Cortés and then about Anne Boleyn’s beheading and the creation of tennis balls from her hair and then about the writer and his attempts to write this book and then some stuff about Caravaggio and you basically get wrapped up in a million short essays that are all united by this tennis match that Enrigue has constructed and it’s boggling.  There’s a chapter in there that I really liked that focused on translation and how it changes the meanings of works.  And, knowing that I’m reading a book translated into English made me read it differently.

So again, it’s a tough book to sell to just anyone because it’s pretty much a limited audience.  It’s good, and worth a read if this is your thing, but it’s weird.  And you might not understand what you just read when you finish it.

In non-challenge news, I also read Dear Pope Francis, which is wonderful because the Pope does not shy away from the tough questions children from around the world ask him, and The Warden by Anthony Trollope (which was for class, not pleasure).  I’m also working on Barchester Towers, another Trollope, and am going to have to finish it within the next two weeks because, well, it’s required reading.  It’s better than The Warden, though, so I’m finding it less troublesome than before.

In any case, I’ve lost count of my RC2016 success (I think I’m at 15/63?), but it doesn’t matter because I’m ahead of schedule and that means I have a chance to sit myself down and really get some schoolwork done.  Whoo.

As always, find a new book at your local indie – and see if they read Veblen or Sudden Death and listen to what they think.  I’m curious how anyone else has taken either, or both.

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The Art of Asking

theartofasking_imageSometimes there’s a book that I pick up because I like the author.  Sometimes there’s a book I pick up because I like the cover.  Sometimes there’s a book I pick up because I’ve heard things about it.

And then there’s Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.  I looked at it first because the cover intrigued me.  And then I thought it sounded pretty good.  And then I thought, “Oh my goodness.  She’s married to Neil Gaiman.”

So if you couldn’t tell, I’m a fan of NG.  Like, I think he’s easily one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever heard of.  Other than, like, Jesus, Pope John Paul II, Mother Theresa, and my parents.  Duh.  But he’s right up there.

Thus, finding out that his wife (who must be equally awesome because, NG) wrote this cool looking book about a meaningful concept meant that I was going to read it.

And let me tell you, it’s worth reading.

Palmer’s book is one of those books that, if you are female or a worrier or bad at asking or sensitive or artistic or a human being, you should read.  Mainly because it’s deeply personal, full of experience, and full of beauty.  The inclusion of her lyrics and photographs adds to her understanding of art and artists because she’s been there.  I mean, if there’s anyone who can say “been there, done that,” it seems like she might be the one.

And this is something we should celebrate endlessly.  I might not be someone willing to sacrifice everything for my art (because, frankly, I don’t know what my art is yet), but I have the utmost respect for those who do.  Because there is a level of bravery that they possess to which I can only aspire.

I’m counting this as my “self improvement” book because it inspires me to do something I’m really bad at: asking.  I think our culture generally does encourage us to be strong individuals and do things all by ourselves, which Palmer addresses, and I believe she is right to say that we all should be asking.  For help, for clothes, for encouragement, for love, for attention, for everything we need as human beings.

Asking is one of the scariest things you can do.  People can say no.  People can laugh.  People can make you feel insignificant.  But you’ll never know if you never ask.

So my goal is that, now that I have read The Art of Asking, I’m going to try to ask more.  Because I am human, and I need help.  And if I need help, I need to accept that sometimes only another person can give me what I need.

Conclusion: read this book.  It’s relatively short, incredibly good, and something from which we can all learn.  All the love in the world to AP, who has truly inspired me.

Now available in paperback from your local independent bookstore.

P.S. This makes me 9/63 on my Reading Challenge.  Whoo!

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Reading Challenge 2016: Update

Well, well, well.  Another day, another celebration of Harry Potter.  Having just survived a really fantastic (and completely packed) HP event at work, I decided I should show you just how far along in my challenge I am.  Spoiler: I’ve done 8/63.  Hooray!

  1. Eligible – see previous post
  2. Rules for a Knight by Ethan Hawke (yes, that Ethan Hawke) – Wonderful book, sweet and insightful and meaningful.  You can read it in one sitting and just enjoy it.  Seriously, get this one.
  3. My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem – The first pick for Emma Watson’s bookclub (Our Shared Shelf on Goodreads), this is pretty interesting.  It’s not thrilling, it’s not one that I necessarily think you should buy, but since I borrowed it from the library, it was worth reading.  As a young woman in America right now, it seems like one of those books I should read, even if I’m not sure I really needed to read it.
  4. King Edward III (allegedly) by William Shakespeare – Awesome.  I love the fact that this is one of those plays that people kind of think was written by Billy Boy because it fits his histories and it uses similar language.  I love pretty much all things Shakespeare, especially when it’s his histories, so I found this really interesting.  Also, who actually learns about Edward III?  Not me.  Fun, worth reading, short.  It’s a play, too, so occasionally it’s fun to read aloud to yourself…
  5. Lumberjanes (Vol. 1) by Noelle Stevenson – Fun comic series, lots of girl-power moments.  Love the illustrations and am interested in Vol. 2.  Maybe I’ll add that to another list…
  6. The Shadow Queen by C.J. Redwine – COMING FEB. 16TH.  One of my coworkers snagged the ARC for this book and said I’d enjoy it, so I borrowed it and will freely admit I read it in two days because it’s a fun teen read.  Redwine is retelling Snow White, and it’s in the style of Snow White and the Huntsman, but it’s how that movie should have been.  No mopey K-Stew. with her weird faces, but instead a legitimately badass princess who’s trying to save her kingdom.  Also love the prince in this (spoiler: he can turn into a dragon!) and how the fairytale is dealt with.  Worth a read if you’re in the mood.
  7. Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson – While it’s not as charming as A Walk in the Woods (which had me howling with laughter just about every page), it’s still Bryson, so it’s still utterly delightful.  This time he’s going around Britain, trying to see the most he can.  He has such hilarious insights into the quirks of cultures and the utter strangeness of human beings generally, plus this time it’s British, so obviously I’m going to love it.  A fun book, and worth reading especially now that the “sequel,” The Road to Little Dribbling is now available.
  8. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell – One of my all-time favorite books, and the book upon which I am writing my thesis.  Obviously, I love it.  And I recommend it.  Because it’s delightful.  As is the BBC 2004 adaptation starring Richard Armitage.

So… 8/63.  Looking pretty good for it being only February.  Notice I have not yet attempted to take on the 500+ page challenge, nor have I chosen the book that “intimidates” me.  We shall see how this goes.

Meanwhile, I’m working on The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer, the delightful wife of the completely fantastic Neil Gaiman (!!!).  It’s charming and meaningful and completely enjoyable.  It also makes me often want to say aloud, “I’ve so been there!”  I think I’m counting this as my “self improvement” book, because I’m feeling like if she’s done it, I can do it.  And by “it,” I mean survive the world in which we live.

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Challenge Accepted!

If you’re someone who, like me, wanders aimlessly across the internet, often when you really shouldn’t be, no doubt you have come across different websites that present lists of reading challenges for 2016.  I myself found at least three (from PopSugar, Book Riot, and Modern Mrs. Darcy), with each offering some pretty interesting ways to stretch my usual fare of old dead English writers.  There are some nuances (read a book you haven’t read since high school vs. a book you should have read in high school), but I figured I needed a challenge.  Because taking another class and trying to write a thesis isn’t enough, right?

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Since I liked all three of the lists I found, I decided to combine them all into one document so that I can just print it out and go, and now I present it to you.

The Honest Reader's Reading Challenge 1

The Honest Reader's Reading Challenge 2It’s a long list (63!!!), but it’s also only January and I think I’ve got at least two of these checked off.  Plus, I figure if there’s a book that covers two or three different challenges, that’s okay.  Many thanks to all three websites that made these awesome suggestions.  Now I’m off to try to read some more!

Check out The Honest Reader 2016 Challenge pdf here: The Honest Reader’s Reading Challenge

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Eligible

41AUFX-6PWLThe time between reviews has been unacceptably long, and so I must begin with my sincerest apologies to anyone out there in cyberspace who has been waiting for an update.  I’m sure one of you felt a momentary twinge of interest before the rest of the world gained your attention and you forgot all about me, which is both fine and understandable.

But what prompts me to write today is one of the greatest disappointments of my recent readings.  Because I have been reading, despite no reviews.  My classes have been taking up a lot of my time and, obviously, most of my reading has come from them.  Detective Fiction allowed for further exploration in some famous mystery novels (The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Drowning Pool, etc.) as well as some not-so-famous ones (the one that comes immediately to mind is Somebody Killed His Editor, which is so utterly dreadful that I can’t help but give it a mediocre review).

Among my pleasure readings, I tackled Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On (an utter masterpiece), Andy Weir’s The Martian (a whole universe of stars in approval for both book and film, although book was unsurprisingly better), Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (MAGNIFICENT), and Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling’s Career of Evil (twisty and compelling mystery, but so gruesome and creepy I have trouble recommending it).

So imagine my absolute joy when, just before the last days of semester, the store received, in the mail, the one galley I had been looking forward to since The Austen Project was announced, the galley that two of my bosses wrote pleas for on my behalf.  I actually jumped with excitement when I took it in my hand and I have never been so ready to start reading a book.

But within the first few pages, I wasn’t convinced I’d like it.  And then I read the back description.  And it sounded… okay…?  And then I kept reading.

And that, dear readers, is where things started to Chinua Achebe.  (Fall apart, I mean.)

If you don’t want any spoilers, look away now.  I’m only saying this because, while I know I usually have some sort of spoilers, I try my hardest not to completely ruin everything, but this one requires some venting on my side, so you’re going to get spoilers.

So seriously, don’t want spoilers of any kind, don’t keep reading.  Just skip to the very end when I tell you when the book is coming to a bookstore near you.

Ready?

So The Austen Project, which I don’t believe I’ve mentioned in great detail, is a brilliant plan to take Jane Austen’s classic novels and modernize them, with a different author taking on each project.  So far, we’ve had Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid, and the ever-wonderful Emma by Alexander McCall Smith.  In all three of these retellings, the authors have stayed true to the plot and characters of the originals while adjusting some details (Marianne of S&S plays guitar and Elinor is studying architecture, Catherine Morland of NA is going to a festival in Edinburgh, and Emma is studying interior design while she plays matchmaker).  I have thoroughly enjoyed the three novels thus far, despite people saying that it’s in bad taste to adjust Jane Austen’s works to modern tastes – what’s wrong with reading the original Austen?!? – and, having just finished a semester course on the famous JA herself, I feel even more confident in my assumption that she would be flattered that authors are vying for a chance to update her stories.

And maybe this is where the trouble for me really starts.  Pride and Prejudice was the first Austen I read over a decade ago and, as a young woman who 1) loves British literature, and 2) loves period piece dramas largely because of Colin Firth’s perfection in playing Mr. Darcy, I had Olympic-level high expectations for the latest Austen Project installment.  And maybe the height of those expectations is what made me dislike this book so much and be so shocked by the generally positive reviews on Goodreads.

Curtis Sittenfeld (Sisterland, American Wife) offers her retelling of the most famous Austen novel under a new name, Eligible, in reference to the reality show in which Chip Bingley takes part.  The trouble is, the novel takes on the feel of a poorly scripted reality show more and more and because less enchantingly Austenian as the plot progresses.  Perhaps Eligible is not Pride and Prejudice because, unlike the retellings from Trollope, McDermid, and McCall Smith’s books, Sittenfeld is trying to distance herself from the original and remove all sense of Austen from the text.  That would seem to me to be a bit of a problem, considering it’s being written for the Austen Project…

Overall, to be perfectly frank, it is only the occasional sentence which glimmers, a moment of grammatical passion, in an otherwise stale retelling.

Basic gist of the story: Liz and Jane Bennet come home to Cincinnati from their lives in New York City because Mr. Bennet has a heart attack and they need to take care of him.  Enter the rest of the Bennets – Mrs., still as obnoxious as ever; Mary, who may or may not be a lesbian and who spends her time taking online college courses instead of spending time getting a job in the real world; Kitty, who apparently has a talent with manis and pedis, but who also refuses to get a real job and move out of the family house; and, of course, Lydia, a snot-nosed, bratty-mouthed, absolutely unbearable update of her 19th century self.  Since the Bennets aren’t really good at keeping budgets, the family is about to go bankrupt (although there never seems to be any urgency about the money situation), and the added pressure of all the girls getting older (Jane is 40, Liz is 38) and having no babies is making life horrible.  And then Chip Bingley, former bachelor star of Eligible (which is The Bachelor without a copyright) and his neurosurgeon friend Fitzwilliam Darcy.  In case you weren’t sure what was going to happen, Liz doesn’t like Darcy at first because he’s kind of a jackass, and Chip immediately hits it off with Jane, and then things happen to interfere with their romantic relationships and in the end people get married.

Blah, blah, blah.

I have lots of issues with this book, and this is basically going to turn into a term paper of why this is a total disappointment, but bear with me.

  1. The ages of characters – I have no problem with casting Liz and Jane as older than the Austen original, mainly because the threat is the same.  Both girls are getting older, they’re single, and nothing seems to be happening.  My issue is that the age doesn’t make them more lovable, nor does it make me sympathize with their plights.  Jane, having been unable to find a good man who wants her and babies for keeps, is undergoing intrauterine insemination so that she can at least have a baby before her eggs dry up.  Liz, meanwhile, has been lusting after a douchebag named Jasper Wick (hmm, I wonder what role he may play?) who happens to be married with a child, but because his wife’s grandmother is super rich, they can’t divorce even though both Jasper and his wife hate each other now, and so Liz embarks on an affair with him because, quite frankly, she can.  So despite Jane and Liz being older, being more metropolitan than their 19th-century counterparts, they don’t seem to have developed much.  I’m not saying that either character pursuing their desires of either children or sexual pleasure is wrong, but it doesn’t feel natural.  Liz’s nonchalance to being the Other Woman, even if Mrs. Jasper is okay with the situation as her husband claims, makes her judgments of Darcy, Bingley, her entire family, unreliable and obnoxious.  Jane suffers, we are told, from a sort of heartbreak where she spends a long time with a man she loves, but who has two children of his own and had a vasectomy, so having children with Jane is off the table.  I’ve never understood women who remain with men whose goals are not even close to aligned, and to have Jane (who is usually a pushover, but at least a sweet pushover) become one of those women irritates me.
  2. Darcy, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr. Collins, Caroline Bingley, Charlotte Lucas, and every other character you might remember running into at some point – their personalities don’t feel right with the way the original was composed.  Darcy is a close exception to being almost what he should be, mainly because he’s a jerk.  Like, a big fat jerk.  But the moment he’s supposed to change (when Lizzy visits Pemberley, if you recall) it doesn’t make sense why he changed.  He just becomes kind of lovable.  And that’s it.  Lady Catherine is no longer a powerful woman who tries to push Lizzy around – she’s Kathy de Bourgh, a famous feminist Liz is trying to interview for her magazine (Mascara, by the way, what a terrible name for a magazine…).
    3

    Mr. Kohli in Bride and Prejudice

    Mr. Collins becomes Cousin Willie, whose previous incarnation is clearly Mr. Kohli from the hit film Bride and Prejudice, as he’s a tech-savvy geek who thinks marriage should be practical and not romantic.  Caroline Bingley is just a bitch, pure and simple, and her jabs at Liz are almost impossibly sharp for no one to notice/call her out.  Charlotte is depressing and nearly bipolar – she shuns Liz’s (albeit pretentious and annoying) advice to not rush into anything with Willie and then bursts into tears when she moves in with the man weeks later.

  3. 1-theholiday3

    Kate Winslet as Iris and Rufus Sewell as Jasper in The Holiday

    The Bad Guy – Jasper Wick (who I can’t help but compare to Rufus Sewell’s Jasper from The Holiday, in which the delightful Kate Winslet must finally let the toxic man who is ruining her love life go) is disappointingly mediocre as villains go, having an incident at Stanford be his nasty bit as opposed to the original Wickham’s near-abduction of Georgiana Darcy.  I’m not saying Jasper’s crime is not worth noting, but it just felt flat.  He gets told to rewrite a shit story in his creative writing class and he pees on the professor’s desk – also, the professor is a black woman, so there’s the ever-present racial threat.  It’s a bad thing to do, but after the buildup of why Darcy hates him and why Jasper doesn’t want Liz to find out the truth… it’s just… disturbing.  To spend so much time climbing a mountain, waiting for some sort of really nasty exploit, only to find that it’s still bad, but not the violence you expected… I just didn’t care.  And this is not to say that a college-age man getting drunk and pissing all over his professor’s desk (whether or not said professor is male/female, black/white) is okay, because it’s not.  It’s gross and childish and honestly pretty creepy.  But it’s not the threat of violence against a woman that the original Wickham carried.

  4. The Elopement – Austen fans will of course recall that the climax of the novel occurs around the time Lizzy sees Pemberley, falls in love with Darcy, and finds out that Lydia is eloping with Wickham, thus ruining the good name of the Bennet family.  Yeah, doesn’t happen here.  Instead, Lydia has been dating a perfectly nice gym owner who seems normal, caring, and down-to-earth.  But then Liz gets a text from Mary – LYDIA’S BOYFRIEND IS TRANSGENDER!  And at that point, the story, for me, really fell apart.  I have no problem with Lydia’s boyfriend being transgender, mainly because it’s an interesting update to a classic.  But the issue I have is that it comes out of nowhere and is expected to resonate with its shock factor.  Sure, the Bennet parents are shocked – SHOCKED, I TELL YOU! – that their daughter is marrying a transgender person, and despite it being 2015 (or ’13, in the novel), there are people who are shocked.  But in the real world, is that something that would make someone elope, and would a daughter eloping still make the father chase after her, and would a family really reconcile as quickly over these issues as they seem to here?  Ham (Lydia’s boyfriend) is perfect throughout the novel – you’ll recall that original Wickham had some moments that were more than suspect – and if he makes Lydia happy, who cares?  The family reaction (which makes Liz leap up and fly from California back to Cincinnati IMMEDIATELY) is another thing that seems forced, and I just frankly didn’t care.  It was too much energy to exert over something that had no real buildup.

b9ff5484f53fd92ca1d9f4236390d682 So what I decided, after writing all of this and trying to find some moment of salvation (couldn’t), is that the biggest flaw is that there are no high stakes here.  For obvious reasons, the dangers of Austen’s world – elopement meaning family ruination, or the endangerment of femininity by masculine force, or low connections cutting off the potential for survival in society – are rarely threats to today’s culture.  But this is why the strength of plot is so vital.  Perhaps a modern reader will not understand why a couple shouldn’t elope, or how that would reflect badly on the family, but a modern reader can appreciate the fact that sexual threats are still frighteningly real, that poverty continues to darken society’s doors.  Maybe Lizzy talking to Wickham for too long alone doesn’t seem so bad to us now, but translate her having an affair with him in which there is collateral damage and she is forced to recognize the fallout – that could work (this Liz may have an affair, but the collateral is unimportant to her, largely because orgasm seems her only real goal in that relationship).

In a modern world where we can expect so much to be happening that threatens our beloved characters – expand on racial issues, expand on LGBTQ issues, expand on political issues – we are instead given boring sisters in a boring family whose biggest problems are being close to middle-aged and not having produced children.  Any potential a modern Lizzy/Darcy relationship could offer is butchered by bland personalities and sessions of “hate sex,” in which they indulge at Liz’s suggestion because she’s bored and Jasper’s not around.  Darcy is awkward and dull and a jackass, but at least he is more palatable than Liz because he is what we expect.

Me, after finishing the book

Me, after finishing the book

Liz is the ultimate betrayal for me.  Elizabeth Bennet has long been one of my favorite heroines – she’s witty, strong, intelligent, funny, and flawed in ways that allow her to grow.  Liz is obnoxious.  She goes beyond proud or prejudiced, and quickly descends into insufferably independent.  I obviously have no issue with strong female characters, but Liz doesn’t seem to grow as a character.  She’s gentle to Georgiana, but who wouldn’t be?  She realizes she’s in love with Darcy… after seeing his house (and while original Lizzy jokes that she fell in love with Darcy after seeing Pemberley, we get the impression she doesn’t mean it seriously).  She makes decisions for her whole family without consulting them because she thinks she knows what is best, and clearly hates her family.  Also, may I reiterate her disinterest in the collateral damage in her sex life?  How can we know that Jasper’s wife is really okay with him having an affair, especially after we find out he’s been having a second affair for a while now?  Liz is no longer a character with sound judgment, nor is she a woman to whom I can look up.  For all her faults, Austen’s Lizzy does what she believes is best, and tries to learn from mistakes.  Call me old fashioned, but I want my heroine to be that kind of flawed, and the same thing goes for my heroes.  I want them to learn, to grow, to become people rather than caricatures.

Jane-Austen-Pride-Prejudice-Monster-Trucks-Kate-BeatonTo make me fall out of love with Lizzy Bennet is a feat no author of Austen sequels, or modernizations, or any movie/TV adaptation has ever managed, so I give kudos to Sittenfeld on that.  But I cannot forgive her for what has happened to this novel, which I had awaited with such great expectations.  My lack of interest broke my heart, and the fact that I checked the end after reading less than a quarter of the book should prove that I finished reading it out of obligation to my bosses who worked hard to get me a copy.

I gave it two stars on Goodreads simply because I have read worse things than this, and I feel that giving one-star reviews is basically like beating up the author repeatedly.  While this review is not glowing, nor will it make the back blurbs on either the hardcover or paperback version of this book, I must be honest.  For the sake of the Austen Project, I can only hope that the next installment is better than this.  Although, if it’s Mansfield Park, my absolute least favorite Austen novel without question, it might be rough going again.

Sorry, Ms. Sittenfeld.

Eligible is due out in bookstores 26 April 2016.  Visit your local indie.  If you dare.

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Meanwhile… Pride and Prejudice and Zombies comes out soon!

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Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman(Alternative post title: In Defense of a New Book, or The Mockingbird of Could-Have-Been)

To Kill a Mockingbird was, is, and (I think) forever shall be one of my favorite pieces of American literature.  More generally, of all literature (and as a Brit lit specialist, that means Harper Lee is ranking right up there with Billy Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and P.G. Wodehouse).  So imagine my excitement when the announcement came that Ms. Lee would be publishing a new book, a sequel of the beloved TKM.

It was something like this: 

Working in a bookstore, we were hit with waves of emotions.  The first, I believe, was absolute giddiness.  The second, absolute fear.  The third, an ethical dilemma.  In the first, we had waited long enough to find out what happened to our beloved characters.  In the second, what if it wasn’t as good as TKM?  There were no edits, after all, and what if she’s not really the brilliant writer we all believed her to be?  And in the third, how are we meant to behave with this news?  Some questioned whether or not Lee was being taken advantage of, some wondered if it was even worth it to publish the “sequel” to an American classic.

And yet we beat on against the current, and the months turned to weeks turned to days.

And then, all of a sudden, social media blew up with articles, the majority of which were headlined “ATTICUS A RACIST.”  (If you don’t believe me, check out this and this.)  So, of course, I read some of the articles and promptly decided to ignore them.  (Here, however, is a link to the NYT review that broke the international embargo…)  Reviews of the book were slipping out, and people have been arguing that Go Set a Watchman is the toppling of idols, the destruction of a great American novel, not to be borne.

So, of course, as soon as I had my copy in hand, I set about to determine whether or not these reviewers had a leg upon which to stand (and may I just say that I did so in one long sitting).  I am, above all things, a creature raised to be reasonable (thank you, Mom and Dad) and after reasonability comes my education at a liberal arts college where I earned two BAs: Literature and History.  As people began discussing a book which most had not yet read, arguing for why Atticus shouldn’t have ever been a racist, determinedly telling me they would never read the book not EVER because HOW DARE THEY, it seemed to me that the issues of the new novel’s origin and time period have been forgotten.

To address the latter first, where TKM was set during the Depression and at a point when WWII was on the horizon, GSW takes on America post-WWII and during the Civil Rights movement… in the South.  So… let’s just stew over that for a moment.  I’m going to guess that there are a few new issues that our favorite characters are going to be facing based solely on that little tidbit.

To address the former of my irritations, GSW was written first.  Let that percolate for a moment as well.  While, chronologically, GSW is a “sequel” to TKM, it is impossible for it to actually be a sequel because TKM didn’t even exist.  I’ve been trying to figure out a way to explain why I think people are going insane for odd reasons, and I think I’ve got my… let’s call it a metaphor.

Imagine, if you will, that the great J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his incredible epic The Lord of the Rings first.  We still meet hobbits and elves and other critters, but there’s something missing.  It’s not published yet, and instead we’re gifted The Hobbit, a delightfully whimsical, yet still provocative, piece of fantasy which all human beings should read (in my very humble opinion).  But lo!  Years later, someone is going through Tolkien’s chest of writing (I somehow can only imagine him with a vast trunk/treasure chest full of scribbles) and finds LotR!  What amazement!  What glory!  What great victory!

Yet when we read this version of LotR, the one written before we’d been introduced to a developed Bilbo, or understood what happens with the dwarves, or why Gollum is kind of a freaky thing, it’s not the same.  Pieces of the puzzle are missing and, while it’s still an interesting fantasy trilogy, it’s not the LotR we would have expected to follow The Hobbit.

(Now, hang in here with me because I know this is not even close to a perfect parallel, but I’m going to try to explain my reasoning.)  Without having built Middle Earth in The Hobbit, Tolkien’s LotR would have been, I assume, vastly different.  Not necessarily worse, but different.  There is no universe, I think, in which an author could begin writing a sequel to a book he or she has not yet written and in which that sequel would align perfectly with a beautifully edited first publication.

Allow me to apply this logic to my reading of GSW (and, for the sake of humanity and its need to read and dispel ignorance on subjects of cultural literacy, I shall refrain from spoilers).

TKM is, in my readings and re-readings, a beautifully structured, written, and emotional book.  It is very close to perfection.  GSW is widely different from its predecessor, and I cannot consider these differences flaws because it was the first novel.  Now allow me to offer a quick list of things that are the same in TKM and GSW.

  • Atticus is Scout’s father
  • Scout’s name is Jean Louise
  • Scout’s brother is/was Jem
  • Maycomb is a tired old town
  • Aunt Alexandra wears corsets
  • Uncle Jack is Atticus and Alexandra’s brother
  • Atticus is a lawyer
  • Scout is a tomboy
  • Dill is/was friends with Jem and Scout and visits/visited Miss Rachel
  • … and that’s about it

Now let me point out some major differences in GSW

  • Scout goes by Jean Louise
  • SPOILER: Jem is dead (you find that out in Chapter 1, so it’s a minor spoiler at best)
  • Boo Radley – nay, all Radleys go unmentioned
  • Miss Maudie has no appearance either as memory or as living/breathing neighbor
  • Mrs. Dubose gets one sentence
  • Henry Clinton exists, and was apparently friends with Jem and Scout forever
  • … and the list goes on and on and… oh, yeah, there’s another important one
  • TOM ROBINSON IS NEVER MENTIONED BY NAME AND THE RAPE TRIAL IN WHICH ATTICUS DEFENDS A BLACK MAN IS COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Sorry.  Spoiler alert for that one, too.

So this is one of the major reasons I’m already tired of calling it a “sequel”.  That’s what I was calling it, because that’s what everyone was saying.  It’s a “sequel” only in the sense that there are several characters with the same names as those in TKM who still interact in Maycomb and the time period of the novel is later than TKM.

Which is why I’m writing this enormously long rant about a book that I enjoyed just fine, but which I would not call a classic in any sense of the word.  I would call it a fascinating piece of historical context, both for the period in which GSW takes place and for its place in Lee’s own story.  In other words, for the very short version of this review: Read Go Set a Watchman to be able to study the development of the characters from Lee’s first written work to the first novel she published that has won our hearts over and over again.  

Now that I’ve joined the ranks of people who have read the ATTICUS IS A RACIST book, I can say this: this Atticus is not our Atticus, just as this Jean Louise is not our Scout.  How can anyone argue GSW is really a sequel when the case which consumes the entirety of TKM is completely different, only briefly mentioned, and did I mention completely different?

Here is the second part of the short version of the review: Don’t read Go Set a Watchman to stir up trouble or to find the racism and the evil.  As Judge Taylor says in TKM, “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”  Read Go Set a Watchman to see a new perspective of what could have been.  And read Go Set a Watchman to bless (repeatedly) the publisher and editors who took To Kill a Mockingbird and made it what it is.

I had little intention of making this a pages-long rambling of why people are reading this book wrong, but there you have it.  Those people who have not read the work and understood that it cannot, CANNOT, be a sequel for the simple reason that the facts of the books do not align and yet declare it a toppling of the Atticus Finch I love have driven me to madness.  All I can do is remember two of my favorite quotes from the real Atticus.

The first, a reminder to myself of why I am writing this, because sometimes thinking is the best way to go about a debate: “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down  No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat.  Try fighting with your head for a change.”

And the second, and the one of the most important from the whole book: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

So before you join the hordes of people calling for the removal of TKM, or hollering about the destruction of idols in GSW, remember to walk around in the skin of a first novel that just found the light of a publishing house.  Consider its angles, its history, its role in a writer’s development.

And thank God for Harper Lee and the publishing team who gave us TKM and all its beauty.

Please remember to support your local indie bookstore by picking up your copy of Go Set a Watchman today!

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