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Harper Lee – To Kill A Mockingbird

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And question society.

Publisher: Arrow Books (Random House)
Pages: 307
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-75263-7
First Published: 11th July 1960
Date Reviewed: 30th March 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

It’s the 1930s and Scout and Jem live with their father, Atticus, a lawyer in a small town in Alabama. Scout is just starting school and finding her way around things she doesn’t understand including subjects Jem seems to know a lot about. As she grows a little older she understands more about her father’s work and when Atticus is employed to defend a black man against a charge of rape, the family will have to deal with people heavily prejudiced against black people and the whites who support them, and Scout will come to learn about the variety of people in a country starting to move towards equality.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a semi-autobiographical novel inspired by Lee’s experience in a similar role to Scout, the child of a man in a similar role to Atticus. It’s a rather quiet book that makes its points with aplomb.

There are many fine elements in this book – the look at race, of course, but also the use of location in a way separate from that, the characterisation, and the general feel of it. It’s a book that if published today would likely be called literary fiction and it’s one that benefits from reading it considering a few viewpoints. How might it have been received if published in the day it was written? How would it have been received in its day? And what value does it have for us today? (That last one can be partly found in the answers to the other two questions.)

The plot meanders between strong, hard-to-put down chapters and easygoing scenes that in another book might make you wonder how much it was worth it – this is where the characterisation comes in. Lee’s strength in developing characters means that you want to keep reading and has that wonderful effect of making the characters feel real. This is of course likely due to the autobiographical element but beyond that it’s just pure talent; no matter how major or minor a character they are given what’s needed to make the book read as pure reality. Scout doesn’t understand much of what she hears, but Lee provides enough for the reader to comprehend it all. What’s lovely about Lee’s choice of narrator and narrative style is that you still get a complete picture of the other characters. There’s quite a bit of humour and a lot of love.

Lee’s look at racism and the burgeoning idea of equality is interesting. The book revolves around it but Lee never lets it take over the text itself – there’s the sense that she wants to make her point but in a way that means you get a positive experience alongside the bad, a good experience of the south of the time in both general life and the way many people supported black American rights, and in order to stay true to her narrator. The impact it may have today may not be as much as it would have been – this is where you need to consider the context in which it was written because as a look at what had been happening earlier in her life, the book is very powerful.

Lee incorporates various social circles into the story, mixing them together. Not too much – the book stays true to reality – but in ways that further support what she’s trying to do, such as Scout and brother Jem sitting with the reverend of the black church when in the court room – for Scout she’s sitting with friends, for the author it’s an extra show of support for the defence. (On that ‘not so much’ I’m thinking of the lack of time given to Tom Robinson directly – he says very little in the book, the focus there is more about how the white, privileged, people are helping him, which of course puts across the idea of tolerance in general and the way in which things had to change.) Lee’s fictional community includes people of many backgrounds and by the end a number of economic and social issues have been covered. Most of note, perhaps, is the story the children construct in regards to Boo Radley and the ultimate revelation of who he is, a well-crafted few segments that display childhood thoughts and kindness with a lot of heart.

The overall quality of the book is evident from early on, but it’s one that’s good to mull over because the more you consider it, the more you see.

I’m keeping this short – there’s only so long one can carry on in review form about a book that has been studied for years, especially when it’s their first read – but suffice to say To Kill A Mockingbird is a very good book.

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Bernhard Schlink – The Reader

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War comes with a price.

Publisher: Phoenix (Orion)
Pages: 216
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-753-80470-4
First Published: 1995
Date Reviewed: 23rd August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Original language: German
Original title: Der Vorleser (The Reader)
Translated by: Carol Brown Janeway

At the age of fifteen, Michael has an affair with an older woman. Hanna entices him but he notes the distance she keeps between them, the way she avoids discussing her past. A few years later, whilst studying law, Michael sits in on the trial of several women who were guards in the SS. Amongst them is Hanna.

The Reader is a fantastic book. It’s compelling, informative, and quite moving, too.

Let’s start with the history the novel is based on: Schlink introduces the reader to the way war crimes of Germans were dealt with by the German courts. You get to see the views of the everyday people of their history and the characters run the gambit – people want justice, children dislike their parents even if the parents didn’t play a role (they dislike them for not fighting against the Nazis), and then you’ve Michael who doesn’t defend the war in any sense but looks at those who participated (via Hanna) in an objective light.

Of course whether or not it’s truly objective, so to speak, is down to the reader. Because the personality and personal history of Hanna is so intrinsic to who she is at the trial, and because of the affair, it could be inferred that Michael is biased towards her somewhat. He doesn’t believe she’s innocent – she’s not – but he looks at her in light of her choices, the reasons for them. (‘No, Hanna had not decided in favour of crime. She had decided against a promotion at Siemens, and had fallen into a job as a guard.’) Schlink, through Michael, then, doesn’t just question Hanna’s involvement in the war, he questions her choices away from it. He questions her as a person, questions the decisions she makes. Hanna is all about honesty when it comes to the trial – whilst the other women lie, she simply affirms or denies. Michael sees in her behaviour someone who knows this is what should happen. Where personality is involved we see the affect illiteracy has on Hanna’s answers. Beyond all else, it seems to Michael, is Hanna’s worry of being exposed as illiterate. Keeping hidden her lack of education, in a place where being able to read and write was is, is more important than avoiding jail.

This is where the idea of ‘the reader’ takes to the stage; this book is about far more, literary-wise, than Michael’s reading aloud in the bedroom. Michael realises that far from making the noted weak women of the concentration camps become her slaves, Hanna’s assigning them to read to her is an attempt to make comfortable what little time they have left. Although she later learns to read and write, Hanna is very much a reader.

In the subtext there is a question: is Hanna selfish? She provides money for a survivor to give to charities – in her, Hanna’s, name. She takes Michael to bed though he is underage and she affectively on the run. She gets those bound for the gas chambers to read to her. Are these displays of selfish or unselfish behaviour?

Both Hanna and Michael take control. Hanna controls Michael in the bedroom – not literally, but in experience – and Michael later controls their contact when she’s in jail. Michael uses Hanna’s imprisonment to atone for his guilt but only so much – he records himself narrating fiction but never goes to visit her. He exploits the literal and emotional distance between them.

Precisely because she was both close and removed in such an easy way, I didn’t want to visit her. I had the feeling she could only be what she was to me at an actual distance… How could we meet face to face without everything that had happened between us coming to the surface?

Michael liked the idea of Hanna and the teenage view of perfect love he had, he doesn’t want to spoil it; he doesn’t want to grow up, in fact – every woman he is with in his life is compared to Hanna. And he doesn’t want to face what’s happened. When Hanna leaves Michael, the reader will note she’s (finally) doing the right thing by him, taking her past with her, letting him be a child again and not rolled up in the affects of war, but of course he doesn’t see that himself.

This book isn’t atoning for involvement; it is the case that it shows how people could be pulled in – by the promise of more pay, for example – because as we know that’s a lot of what it was. We can compare Schlink’s writing of the events of WWII with Irene Némirovsky’s Suite Française: Némirovsky wrote of the war whilst she was living it as a person of Jewish heritage hiding from the Nazis. Both Schlink and Némirovsky show the human side of the Nazi party, or, rather, the human side to those who were at the bottom, the low-ranking soldiers who did what they were told to do, or at the very least did what they felt they had to do. Of course in Némirovsky’s case this is more profound, she’s giving a voice to fictional versions of the people who were hunting her down as she wrote, but both Némirovsky and Schlink write in such a way that asks for thought, does not suggest forgiveness nor ask for it.

It’s almost too obvious to state, but there is a lot of information about Auschwitz in The Reader, and about the role of women in the SS. The books ends in a way you may feel it ‘ought’ whilst showing there are far more reasons behind it than the ones on the surface.

A brief word on the writing – beautiful. Simple, to the point, and full of sub-textual imagery. The words may technically be Janeway’s but Schlink’s prose seeps through.

The Reader is a book of great magnitude. The potential for impact is high, the content hard to read but invaluable, the journey sad but necessary. It is a book for everyone.

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Tom Kizzia – Pilgrim’s Wilderness

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When God is no longer that man in the sky but the father of a family that has no choice but to follow him.

Publisher: Crown Publishing (Random House)
Pages: 296
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-58782-4
First Published: 16th July 2013
Date Reviewed: 30th October 2013
Rating: 4/5

Tom Kizzia recounts the story of the ‘Pilgrim’ family who appeared at first to be naïve wannabe pioneers in rural Alaska, but later proved to be problematic to the National Park Service, the local residents of McCarthy, and a group of people with a horrific secret.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness is the generally well-paced and well-written tale of a family that was not all what they seemed to be. Including tales of what came before McCarthy, and his own then-present reporting of the Pilgrims for the newspapers, Kizzia creates a strong and shocking story, reminding you that appearances can be deceptive.

Kizzia’s approach to the work is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, recommendations for it. Kizzia’s approach is both biased and highly objective. And whereas a bias can often detract from unpersonal non-fiction, here it is necessarily apt. The actions of Bob Hale (‘Papa Pilgrim’) warrant an incredible and understandable bias against him, and it is to Kizzia’s credit that he, the writer, stays away from slandering. Kizzia could not help but be biased, it would be intolerable any other way, and it is interesting that it may take the reader a while to realise why.

This is because for a long while the issues are all to do with land ownership and the way many dislike governmental take overs of land in the name of preservation. Kizzia is fair here, telling the reader why the Pilgrims had a good claim, and why the National Park Service had a right to feel irritated. He includes the various thoughts of the long-term residents of McCarthy. But the reader who is still on this section, if they haven’t realised where the Pilgrim’s tale is headed, may see Kizzia’s bias as unfair – it will all depend on which side of the debate (parkland or private property) they fall. Kizzia includes, one can assume, the whole debate, but he is bias towards the National Park Service whilst giving the Pilgrims’ opinions plenty of time.

Depending on how much prior information the reader has, it may only be after other details of the Pilgrims’ lives begin trickling into the narrative that Kizzia’s viewpoint can be truly appreciated. Providing all sides and quoting everyone when your story has a darkness to follow is admirable, and for all Papa Pilgrim and others’ thoughts on Kizzia’s reporting, he has strayed from the traditional picture of the entertainment-creating out-for-himself journalist.

Quotations are another element that should be noted. Kizzia’s book is full of the words of others; his sources are identified, his commentary backed up, and his views of people as objective as possible when possible. Crucially, he includes the words of the Pilgrim children, and rather than just telling the reader that they changed, he often writes in a way that almost hands the narrative over to them. It is obvious from the specifics of the writing style that Kizzia went straight to the primary sources whenever he could.

By now it will come as no surprise to say that the darkness in the tale is one of abuse. Whilst Papa Pilgrim based his life and rulings, in his mind, on a literal reading of the Bible, this was a man who acted in every way but the way his God wanted. Kizzia does not gloss over facts.

Referring once more to Kizzia’s style, the author has made a brilliant contrast, showing that whilst the Pilgrims did not live a truly Christian life (at least not so long as their father was controlling them) there are other families of similar appearance who do. When the Pilgrim children finally saw freedom it was in the form of a family who were not so different. The Buckinghams wore (and presumably still wear) the same sorts of clothes, share the same deference to gender roles, put God first, live in a cabin, and promote the virtuous way of life – but they are as different to Papa Pilgrim and his views as chalk and cheese. It is perhaps surprising to hear that the Pilgrim children did not escape their father to be introduced to the mainstream way of life but simply to a positive version of their own, and yet it feels very appropriate. These children were so far from twenty-first century life with its television, video gaming, sexual liberation, and shopping, that there is no saying how they would have faired, but the Buckinghams’ similar (but true) focus on God enabled them to stay true to who they had become. In any other book, the Buckinghams may have been regarded as a worry, given the Pilgrims’ background, but Kizzia shows that just because people do not meet expectations, that they share a visual similarity to problematic cases, it does not mean they are the same.

There are but a few places where Kizzia’s work is brought below masterpiece level. There is a lot of superfluous information in the book, of other people’s pasts and of Alaska, that could have been edited out to keep the pace of the narrative going – especially when those people play only a bit-part. There is a constant switch back and forth between eras of the Pilgrim family’s movements that becomes confusing to follow. And there is the unfortunate story of Kizzia’s wife who died from cancer. Sally’s life is of course important to discuss, but the tale of a law-abiding beloved wife who died of cancer included in the story of a lying, cheating, sexual and domestic abuser who raped his children and had no connection to Sally, is out of place. A memoir would be wonderful.

But, as suggested by this review, the work is, as a whole, an excellent one. Kizzia has given a long-lasting voice (as opposed to disposable daily news) to the children and wife of Bob Hale, as well as a voice to McCarthy. His handling of the subject matter and his approach to it are superb and it is safe to say that this book is one that won’t leave you any time soon.

Pilgrim’s Wilderness suggests reflection, asks for empathy, and relates triumph in the face of adversity. It is a difficult book to read, but it is a story that begs to be heard.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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Andrew Blackman – On The Holloway Road

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A trip for freedom.

Publisher: Legend Press
Pages: 202
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90655-808-2
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 7th October 2013
Rating: 5/5

Jack lives a monotonous life. He wakes up in his mother’s house, tries to continue writing his novel, fails, goes out every now and then, rinse and repeat. One evening he decides to eat a dreary kebab in a dreary shop but his meal is interrupted by Neil Blake, a man of a similar age who has led a more colourful, slightly illegal life. Whisked away by Neil’s friendly nature, Jack finds himself at pubs and parties. Then Neil suggests a trip to Scotland.

On The Holloway Road is a clever and well written book, inspired by Kerouac’s On The Road, that deals with the themes of life and freedom. Written in hindsight from Jack’s perspective, the story is slow, aptly lazy in its pace at times, and a little satirical.

The characters are complete opposites, and not supposed to be liked particularly. Neil is impulsive, he dislikes any limitations placed upon him by outsiders, and he is full of charm, but he can be thoughtless and selfish. Indeed he would laugh at being told to think about repercussions – the reader is likely to think ahead and question Neil’s decisions, and it is exactly that action that Neil would denounce. Neil lives in the moment, lives for freedom, has experienced the other side of the coin and sees its flaws. In comparison, Jack has little will, in fact what will he does have is a side effect of his spending time with Neil. Jack is content in his monotony, his typical life that fits neatly into the slot, and though he isn’t happy he won’t do anything to change that.

Jack’s overall dullness is a major reason the book is slow. Rather than an error on the part of the author, the pace is a decided upon element that shows you just how different Jack and Neil are. Neil’s dialogues are fast paced and full of words, as Jack says, but it is the difference in nature that allows the reader to see where Jack’s safe life might be too safe, whilst of course showing that Neil falls a bit too much towards the other extreme. The book is very much a character study as well as a different take on Kerouac.

It is character-driven, and it is plot-driven, yet at the same time it would be difficult to say that there is a plot as such. The plot is vastly in the realm of the book’s themes. Blackman has crafted a commentary, a very sharp commentary that strikes at the heart of current political, social, and law elements that protect/hinder (depending on the way you see it) the people of the United Kingdom. Through Neil and Jack, Blackman shows the limits of the people’s freedom, the limits imposed by the government and councils. There are many scenes where Jack finally lets go a little, Jack the good lawful if boring citizen, and is rewarded by a penalty of the exact type the duo are trying to escape. As an example, a trip to a country park costs them £100 in car parking fines when they get back to the car and notice the fine details of the parking space.

Freedom here is woven into the larger political context. The story shows the differences between someone who is institutionalised, or just used to, the way of the land, and another who isn’t. And of course what is interesting as well as understandable is the way it’s the person who has been to jail that wants to be free, especially as it is a freedom in lifestyle that Neil wishes for (in other words Neil isn’t wanting the ability to go and kill someone). It’s the case that everywhere they go, Neil says they are or should be free. The government soon tells them they aren’t.

Leaving my Figaro marooned in the grass, I walked forward to get a better look. Warnings were being shouted through a megaphone. Acts of Parliament were being invoked. Arrests were being promised. The appearance of fairness, of reason. Disperse now. A chance to avoid arrest.

And if reason failed, as it surely would, then violence would be justified. Protocol would have been followed. The blows of the batons would have legal sanction, while any retaliatory violence would be grounds for prosecution.

Jack is no one without Neil, and indeed it comes as no surprise to understand, through Jack’s words, that he relies on Neil to ‘live’. It’s one of those things you know instinctively, and it just takes Jack’s words to cement it. And as for Neil, it seems that freedom he wants is nowhere – no matter restrictions or not, you get the sense he will always be against something. In this way the ending is very appropriate, the particular ending for him says a lot about the character and what Blackman is trying to say.

To refer to the inspiration, Kerouac’s On The Road is used both behind the scenes, so to speak, and in the story as an element in itself. Jack and Neil listen to the audio book whilst travelling; it is almost a double usage of the work, between the tape cassette and Blackman’s references to it as the author. It forms a lot of the philosophy and quotations are borrowed and reworked so that they fit in with Neil and Jack.

As the book reaches its ending, another clever aspect becomes apparent. The way it is written, the way the story is referenced, makes it seem possible that it could be about Blackman, that it could be about anyone. Twisted into the last chapters is the final resolution – the answer to what happens after the book concludes, there is even a hint as to what happens a lot further down the line. If only Jack takes the chance.

It seems he did, or perhaps he hired Blackman to do it for him as the author clearly knows more than Jack, just as Neil does. Blackman is almost the unbiased third party, the person in the middle of the two.

On The Holloway Road is superb. It is likely to appeal most to British readers, as they will be able to relate to the political details well, but the references to Kerouac and the commentary will interest readers of other nations too. And the theme of freedom is universal as are likely some of the civil elements.

I know the author as a fellow book blogger.

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John Elder Robison – Raising Cubby

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Inaccessibility has never been so accessible.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 354
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-88484-8
First Published: 15th January 2013
Date Reviewed: 10th April 2013
Rating: 5/5

Robison recounts his time as a parent with Asperger’s, bringing up a child from birth to the teenage years. Involving stories of entrepreneurship, life when society doesn’t always understand you, and court cases when people make mountains out of molehills, Robison’s book is about himself as much as it is his son’s progression and the possibility that Cubby (Jack) might have Asperger’s, too.

Raising Cubby is a wonderful book that is successful as much for what it doesn’t say than for what it does. Robison takes the approach of organising his book by topic rather than by life stage, meaning that you read a lot more about Jack than you might have if the story had been completely linear. And whilst Robison has much to impart about Autism, he does it in a way that invites the reader into the fold. The book seems fresh, and it is, because you have the first-hand experience rather than an account by someone who knows someone with a condition, as is so often the case.

Robison balances serious statements with a lot of easy humour. His book is in the vein of that new phrase, ‘literary non-fiction’, where the story flows as well as any novel. It is an account, but it feels as though he is talking directly to you at times, and his humour invites a certain intimacy – you will finish this book feeling as though you’ve known the people in it for years.

This leads us onto the next point, because this affability and invitation seems at odds with what Robison describes of himself and of Autism in general. Taken at face value, as he says, those on the autistic spectrum can seem rude and anti-social. So the accessibility of his book knocks that notion out of the water. Which is brilliant, really, as it further backs up the truth of the matter, which, as Robison says, is that those on the spectrum wish to have friends, but happen to be oblivious to the way they come across to others.

The last point in the previous paragraph does not in turn relate to the writing in the book, however. Robison speaks naturally and has a good command of language, you would expect an English degree to be amongst his accolades. This in itself may surprise some readers, and by itself makes the book stand out as one that would be an invaluable source to schools and any organisations that struggle to understand those on the spectrum. But in addition, Robison writes honestly, he never censors himself – in other words he includes decisions he’s made that might sound strange to many, without any hint of apology or explanation. He clarifies the first few times, so that you will be able to tell where his Asperger’s has played a part in decisions, but otherwise there is nothing. Therefore when things sound odd there are no excuses – this is Robison, this is an example of Asperger’s, and as a reader you just get used to it. Robison explains the logic to some decisions so that you come to understand his mindset, but the overall approach means that not only will the uninformed reader come away knowing a lot more about Autism than they would any book by unaffected ‘experts’ but readers with autism will likely be able to relate to it, too, especially since there is no time for patronisation or misplaced sympathy. Raising Cubby is very much a book for anyone.

Due to the inclination for obsessive interests, readers who love the following topics will find in this book fodder for them: the upkeep and alteration of musical instruments, repairing and refurbishing cars, building homes, and chemistry. There is enough information about trading card games to appeal to those who may have had trouble leaving them behind with childhood. It’s not that the book is lengthy with masses of information, it’s the way that information is incorporated throughout. Robison is a geek, and the reader can rest assured that they can join him without any of the eye-rolling or sighs that often accompany responses when an attempt is made to discuss a beloved subject in person.

…the Commonwealth of Massachusetts had also charged him with one count of “possessing explosives with the intent to harm people or property”. I guess that was their backstop – if they couldn’t prove he harmed people or destroyed property, they wanted to prove he meant to.

The book is striking for many reasons, but one reason is far removed from the others. As Cubby, a child genius with no understanding for how others would view him, experimented with chemistry, the law inevitably arrived at the door. This episode gives Robison the opportunity to call into question the vast chasm that is rules made for the typical person coming up against people for whom they cannot work. Robison shows how naivety and disability are exploited for gain by others, and how the rules need to be changed. The account of Cubby’s trial inevitably calls to mind the case of Gary Mackinnon, a British man with Autism who hacked into the Pentagon computers to find evidence of aliens. Robison’s account may not refer to it, but the two events run neatly in line. Things are not black and white, especially when disability is involved.

Robison may have an epilogue that hopes for changes in the court system, further progression for acceptance, and education in society of those who do not match the expectations of society, but the strength of his book surely lies most in the overall approach and content. Raising Cubby is a brilliant book for general reading, but there is no doubt that the best future for it would be in the consumption by those who deal with people on the spectrum on a constant basis and who as yet lack the information necessary to both help their charges excel, and excel as teachers themselves.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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