Book Review: Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

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2/5 Stars

Before I write this review I have to post a bit of a disclaimer: I haven’t read To Kill a Mockingbird since high school. When I read it, I didn’t love it. I’ve never held it—or its central hero—on a high pedestal, so I don’t have a strong attachment to it and it’s possible that I’m misremembering certain aspects of it. 

Spoilers ahead.

Wow, what a ride this was. I had so many thoughts while reading this book. Let me just put this out there first: As a standalone novel, Go Set a Watchman isn’t very good. Nothing really happens. The childhood flashbacks are, for the most part, wholly unnecessary. It’s didactic as anything I’ve ever read, yet Harper Lee fails to flesh out her most interesting themes. What was most interesting for me was reconciling it with To Kill a Mockingbird—which, I’ll fully admit, is a much better work of literature. What I’m about to say and then expand upon in this “review” is a very unpopular opinion: I think the evolution of Atticus Finch is sort of brilliant—whether or not Lee intended the kind of analysis that’s about to follow (and I don’t think she did). For

If To Kill a Mockingbird is the cushy, comfortable novel about well-meaning white people within the context of the long, dark history of racism in America, Go Set a Watchman is its woke older sister. Well, in theory, at least, though not so much in Lee’s execution.

In TKAM, Atticus is that classic white person who just wants everyone to get along. He preaches love and understanding of anyone, no matter what—even Hitler! Even the white racist who just tried to lynch a black man. Or, to use a more timely example: Even Donald Trump. Even his racist supporters. He doesn’t really want to dig deep into the realities of racism or challenge himself or those around him. He’s comfortable with white supremacy. He wants to feel good about himself—like he’s a virtuous person doing the right thing, even though he’s unwilling to rock the boat in any truly meaningful way. But for all intents and purposes he’s generally regarded by white readers to be a hero. The epitome of morality and goodness. He is the ultimate White Savior.

Needless to say, the revelation in Go Set a Watchman that Atticus is PRETTY FUCKING RACIST pissed off a lot of people. It shattered that long-held conception of a literary hero. But here’s the thing: when you think about it, even in the context of TKAM, it’s really not all that shocking.

In GSAW, it’s no longer the 1930s. Now it’s the 1960s and black people are actively trying to disrupt the status quo of white supremacy and racism in pursuit of equal rights. And Atticus isn’t down with this. In fact, he’s a regular at his local Citizens’ Councils meetings (a group of white supremacists), he loathes the NAACP, he opposes integration and he thinks black people are “still in their childhood as a people.”

I know a lot of white readers felt very cheated by this development. Atticus Finch is a “Good Person.” He’s a “Hero.” He can’t be a “Racist.” And yet, I can’t help but feel like this evolution of Atticus Finch makes total sense. It’s actually pretty consistent with his character, and it isn’t really such a stark diversion. Atticus was fine when he got to be the Good White Man defending an innocent black man in the 1930s (see: white paternalism), but now that it’s the 1960s and white supremacy is being challenged and he’s feeling threatened by that, we’re given insight into his deep-seated prejudices and his true self. And that’s just the thing: both of these versions of him (TKAM and GSAW) are his true self; it’s just that a lot of readers don’t like having to acknowledge that.

But I think we need to stop deluding ourselves: Atticus Finch was never the beacon of virtue and morality that we wanted him to be. He was a white savior who upheld, rather than resisted, elements of systemic racism and white supremacy. And his defending Tom Robinson in the pursuit of justice doesn’t change that. By today’s standards, he might be the person who celebrates a white-washed, sanitized version of MLK and doesn’t believe himself to be racist, yet denounces Black Lives Matter as a terrorist organization.

In GSAW, Atticus is the same person he has always been. And the collective outrage regarding the so-called tarnishing of a white savior whom so many regarded as a literary hero may actually be more of a reflection of the outraged readers and their own self-imposed blinders and comfort zones than anything else.

It’s not easy facing difficult truths about people we have come to love. Jean Louise grapples with this in GSAW when she learns about her father’s racism. And we, as readers, must also confront this reality about our former hero. This feels especially timely right now given our current political climate, wherein many folks are struggling to reconcile the love they have for their family members and friends with the shocking reality that these people voted for a racist, misogynistic demagogue and may possess these unsavory qualities themselves.

Atticus is a reminder to us all that racism isn’t always relegated to the dregs of society. You can be a good father…and still be racist. You can do good in your life…and still be racist.

Unfortunately, many of these important points that arise in Go Set A Watchman are ultimately addressed in an extremely disappointing way: Jean Louise’s uncle calls her a bigot for rejecting her father’s racist opinions (WHAT?!) and then she ultimately feels bad about the things she said to Atticus and concludes that maybe he’s not so bad after all. I hope that for those of us today who are confronting uncomfortable truths about the people in our lives, we don’t let them off the hook quite so easily.

In conclusion now that I’m at 1,000+ words here, as much as I found GSAW to be a mediocre standalone novel, I can’t help but love that it has made readers (myself included, of course) look back and re-evaluate a universally revered childhood book from a new—and yes, uncomfortable—perspective.

 

Book Review: Delicious Foods by James Hannaham

3.5/5 Stars.

Delicious Foods begins with Eddie, a young man with freshly severed hands, frantically trying to steer a stolen car from Louisiana to Minnesota. It’s a gripping first chapter that sets the stage for the rest of the novel. What exactly is Eddie escaping? How did he lose his hands?

From there, we step back quite a bit to see what led Eddie to this situation. We learn that his father died horrifically when Eddie was six years old. His mother Darlene, devastated by the loss of her beloved husband, turned to crack to cope with her grief and trauma. One day, when Eddie was still a child, Darlene disappeared. It turns out she had been lured away with the promise of a good job at a mysterious, nefarious company called Delicious Foods that essentially enslaves black employees, trapping them at the facility to conduct strenuous manual labor in exchange for drugs.

Delicious Foods is a southern gothic cultural satire with a distinctly surreal bent to it, and there are a lot of compelling metaphors at play: while modern slavery and unfair labor practices—particularly in the food industry—are current realities, Delicious Foods is just as much a commentary on pre-Civil War chattel slavery and the deep legacy of racial injustice in America. Hannaham’s characters are bombarded with modern examples of systemic racism, and these struggles often drive them to desperation.

Perhaps the most brilliant thing about this book is that Darlene’s chapters are actually narrated by crack cocaine (nicknamed Scotty). It’s a strange narrative device, but it totally works—and it really drives home the hold that drug addiction has over people’s humanity.

As much as I loved Hannaham’s ideas and the ingenuity of his narrative approach, I struggled with the pacing of this book. I’m not sure it had to be as long as it was. And as interested as I was in the story, there were few scenes that gripped me quite like the opening.

I read this for a book club, and I’m glad I did. There’s certainly a lot to discuss about slave labor, systemic racism, addiction, familial loyalty, freedom and forgiveness.

Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

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4/5 Stars.

Look, it’s didactic and heavy-handed, okay? And Eggers is sort of unabashedly prone to proselytizing. His protagonist is frustratingly meek. And maybe not all of his ideas are completely fresh. But none of this changes the fact that The Circle is a hell of a fun read. A serious page-turner. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s like an episode of Black Mirror—most notably Nosedive or The Entire History of You. I don’t even care about all the obvious flaws because I enjoyed it so much.

The Circle is the world’s largest internet company, and 24-year-old Mae is lucky enough to land an entry-level job there. If you’ve ever worked at a hip startup or a tech company, you’ll grin knowingly at Eggers’ satirical portrait of company culture: the ever-expanding number of computer screens per employee; the insistence that it’s not all about work, it’s also about community, but curiously enough, being part of the community starts to feel like work, too.

Working at the Circle feels like a dream come true for Mae, and she’s desperate to impress her peers—even as the constant demand for in-person socialization and online participation in the Circle’s social network begins to take over her life. Soon enough, Mae is sleeping at the Circle’s on-site dorms and spending all of her time in this cult-like environment in an effort to raise her personal participation score and improve her rank at the company. As one of her old friends eventually points out, she’s creating the illusion of living an interesting life, but she’s not really living.

At the Circle, everything is tracked and ultimate transparency is the utopian ideal. What if you could know everything? Wouldn’t it be nice to eliminate uncertainty? If we were all being watched, would it not result in a more moral way of life?

As Mae is deeper ingrained in the Circle, she inadvertently becomes a necessary component of the company’s more nefarious ambitions until she’s in completely over her head. In this fascinating, visionary novel, Eggers explores the notions of technology, information, privacy, surveillance and transparency. What’s eeriest of all is that the dystopian nightmare he has imagined doesn’t seem very far off from our current world.

Book Review: Zone One by Colson Whitehead

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2.5/5 Stars.

As I learned from reading The Underground Railroad (one of my favorite books of 2016), Colson Whitehead is all about taking a genre that you think you know and turning it on its head. Zone One is a zombie novel, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from this sub-genre: it’s a snarky satire that focuses its commentary more on modern society than innate humanity.

In Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world, survival is re-branded by teams of overseers who recognized the importance of good marketing. Those who are still alive aren’t called survivors, they’re called “the American Phoenix.” The camps and safe zones have names like “Babbling Brooks” and “Happy Acres” that make them sound more like suburban condominiums.

Mark Spitz, the book’s protagonist, is a mediocre man who thrives in this new world where he notes that “intellect and ingenuity and talent [are] as equally meaningless as stubbornness, cowardice, and stupidity.” Here he has taken on the job of a “sweeper,” tasked with clearing the streets of Manhattan of zombies.

Even Whitehead’s zombies are interesting. There are two different categories: the skels are your typical modern zombies, making up 99% of the infected. But then there’s the remaining 1%, dubbed the stragglers, who become frozen in place repeating a mundane task until they’re put out of their misery.

There are so many cool ideas here, but unfortunately cool ideas don’t make for a compelling story. As much as I appreciated the cleverness of Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic world, I felt bored for the majority of this book. Not a lot happens. The tension is minimal. The prose is verbose.

Zone One would have made an excellent short story. Whitehead is great writer with an enviable imagination. But that wasn’t enough to carry this full-length novel.

Book Review: The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

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This powerful, epic work of macro fiction has all the makings of a classic novel. I’ll be honest: at first I could barely muster the interest to start reading it. A 550-page book about horse racing? Nah, not for me. But The Sport of Kings is so much more than it appears to be: beneath the surface, it’s a sweeping examination of racism and classism in America.

At the center of this ambitious novel is the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. As a young boy in the middle of the 20th century, Henry Forge is taught by his father that “man is the measure of all things” and that “real knowledge begins with knowing your place in the world.” Much to his father’s chagrin, Henry is intent on altering his family’s legacy. He has greater ambitions than growing corn; instead, he becomes obsessed with breeding the next Secretariat, and years later he enlists his daughter, Henrietta, to help.

Henry and Henrietta are each given entire sections of the book—and they’re fascinating characters. But there’s another key person at the heart of their story: Allmon Shaughnessy, the biracial groom Henrietta hires (without consulting her father) to help them with their horses. While the Forges have a deep history of wealth and racism, Allmon carries with him the wounds of being a poor black man in a country that seems hellbent on tearing him down. Inevitably, they converge in a myriad of complex ways that build to a tragic denouement.

This isn’t a quick, easy read. It’s dense and it’s demanding and it requires a significant investment—and yet it’s ceaselessly compelling. Morgan is smarter than most of us—and to the delight of a reader like myself who enjoys being challenged intellectually and emotionally, she isn’t afraid to show it. She quotes Darwin and Protagoras. She doesn’t give us easy answers or tidy resolutions.

Although it takes place in modern times, we learn about the Forge’s history as slaveowners and the tragic story of Allmon’s great-great-great-grandfather, an escaped slave. And through all of this is a sense that the characters have fixed destinies—a fatalism from which they are each desperate to liberate themselves. Horse racing is about lineage, and so, too, is the story beneath the surface in The Sport of Kings. But people aren’t animals, and their lineage is more than just biology and genetics; it’s history and circumstance, both familial and sociological.

Book Review: Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey

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4/5 Stars.

I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love (and have no desire to), but I get the feeling this book is sort of the antithesis of it and other feel-good books about women finding themselves.

Without telling anyone, Elyria abruptly leaves her husband and her normal Manhattan life behind, traveling across the world to New Zealand to escape and isolate herself from the monotony and melancholy she has grown to resent, as well as her unresolved grief following her sister’s suicide.

In New Zealand, she engages in a series of reckless behaviors: hitchhiking with strangers, sleeping in abandoned sheds in the middle of nowhere, and ultimately landing herself under psychiatric evaluation.

Consumed by feelings of dread, anxiety and apathy, Elyria self-consciously exposes the darkness that lies deep inside of her, meditating on her own innate wildness. There’s this sense throughout that she wants to want the decent, normal life from which she has estranged herself, but knows ultimately the futility of this. Perhaps the biggest tragedy of all though is seeing her come to terms with the fact that no matter how far she slips away from her old life, she will never escape herself.

Told in first-person stream-of-consciousness prose, Nobody Is Ever Missing is a haunting, surreal portrait of a woman in the midst of a personal crisis. Lacey’s writing is lyrical and poetic; I found myself dog-earring multiple breathtaking passages and lingering on her stunning, powerful writing.

Book Review: Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss Jr.

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4/5 Stars.

This is a book about failed investments. Not just one couple’s doomed investment in a suburban California home, but the different ways that we become invested in the various aspects of our lives—whether it’s a marriage or a career—and the ease with which it can all fall apart.

Carousel Court is a scathing, brutal account of the modern American Dream. At its center is a couple who loathe each other to a truly vicious degree. It sort of has a Bret Easton Ellis vibe to it: in McGinniss’s world of contemporary suburban America, everyone is selfish and horrible, everyone lies and cheats, excess and depravity are rampant. It’s an extreme level of cynicism and nihilism that isn’t entirely realistic, but it works as a caricature of the most degenerate people and scenarios.

Everything about it is just downright nasty and vile, from the savage dialogue between Phoebe and Nick to the tiny details: juicy cicadas everywhere, always; dead animals; green sludge accumulating in the in-ground pool. The vibe is dark and ominous: nothing can possibly end well for these two.

Most of us have, at one point of another, experienced the letdown of failing to realize our ambitions, desires and expectations. And that’s what makes Carousel Court so uncomfortable: it reminds us that any of us could ostensibly become Phoebe and Nick, spiraling on a collision course into relentless despair.

Yeah. It’s not a happy book by any means. It’s raw and it’s vicious, save for a glimmer of hope for redemption. Like a trainwreck, you want to look away, but you can’t.

Book Review: The Fall Guy by James Lasdun

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4/5 Stars.

This was a fast, engrossing read with better writing than I expect from a book like this.

Matthew, stagnant and inadequate in his own life, observes the lives of those around him with envy, projecting his own desires onto others. His main focus is his successful cousin, Charlie, with whom he shares a complicated history. When Charlie and his wife Chloe invite Matthew to spend the summer with them at their mansion in the mountains, tensions slowly rise and things take a turn for the ominous.

Matthew is a classic unreliable narrator, so convincing in his certitude that it’s genuinely hard to distinguish whether he’s a delusional creep or just a strange, lonely guy who was a dealt a bad hand. He operates with a sense of moral passivity—as if he has no control over the things he does and the decisions he makes.

The Fall Guy blurs the lines between victim and perpetrator, right and wrong. It’s a surprisingly smart, stimulating read—right down to the Cioran and Pascal references within. If you need an absorbing page-turner, it certainly does the trick.

Book Review: Arcadia by Lauren Groff

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3/5 Stars.

Oh, Lauren Groff. Your purple prose. Your absence of quotation marks. Your writing is actually quite beautiful, but that isn’t good enough for you, apparently. What does it mean for a girl to have a “sweet cupcake face” anyway?

I went back and forth between feeling like this book was a total slog and finding it utterly compelling. This is my second Lauren Groff book. With Fates and Furies, I loathed the first half and loved the second half. With Arcadia, my emotions didn’t reach such extremes, but my experience was the exact opposite: I enjoyed the second half much more than the first half.

Arcadia presents us with the life of Bit, born in an idyllic commune in the middle of the woods in the 1970s. It follows him from childhood through adulthood, as he is eventually forced to assimilate in the outside world.

He falls in love, experiences life-altering tragedy, has a child of his own and ultimately finds himself returning to the commune years later, as if it were part of his destiny.

Arcadia is about a utopian dream—at its best, its worst and everything in between. It’s about life, and what matters most within it: family, love, community. It’s a complete, fulfilling story with remarkable beauty and depth if you’re willing to endure Groff’s ostentatious prose.

Book Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

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4/5 Stars.

I have a confession to make: this is my first time ever reading a Kurt Vonnegut novel in its entirety. I started a few in high school, couldn’t make it through, and am evidently just now getting around to rectifying that as an adult.

Slaughterhouse-Five is an anti-war satire that depressed the hell out of me. (I like depressing things, so I don’t mean this in a bad way.) Billy Pilgrim‘s (and really Vonnegut’s) method of coping with the trauma of war by resigning himself to escapism and fatalism is devastating yet perfectly sensible: what better way to deal with life’s meaninglessness and one’s perceived helplessness in the face of its worst atrocities?

Of course, the irony here is that fatalism is a lie. While I had immense sympathy for Pilgrim’s reactionary adoption of this mindset, I appreciated the larger takeaway that we (humans) do indeed have a choice when it comes to war, and that it’s absurd to delude ourselves into thinking that we can or should ever let ourselves off the hook for the destruction that it causes.