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P is for The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver captivated me from the prologue where a mother traipses through an African jungle with her four young daughters.  Orleanna Price, the wife of a zealous Baptist minister from Georgia, knows she is an oddity, a white woman in a Belgian Congo village in 1960. She seems to be speaking from a distant time and place, perhaps from her own grave. Her gimlet eye sees the jungle with its voracious ants and fecund flora, but more, she sees her internal life riven with conflict, acquiescence, and inadequacies that have cost her most dearly.

If Orleanna is quiet and submissive to her husband, it is he, Nathan Price, who is loudest and most obstinate. Intending to convert the native Congo inhabitants, he attempts to convince them of Christianity’s truth by pointing to the Bible and describing it as bangala, a Kilanga word he believes to mean “precious.” But his pronunciation is incorrect, and thus he declares the Bible to be “poisonwood.” It’s just the beginning of everything he gets wrong about Congo, from the language to the people to the customs to how hungry the community is to the coming revolution that will jettison colonialism in the Congo – and will alter his family’s course, one by one. Yet Nathan listens to no one and his obdurate convictions have catastrophic consequences for everyone.

Along with Orleanna, the four daughters tell the stories of their lives in Africa in alternating chapters. Rachel, the oldest at fifteen, the most beautiful and the most materialistic, is also cynical, selfish, and mixes metaphors hilariously. She yearns to be a normal teenager, something not possible in a jungle. Yet as an adult she carves out a unique livelihood managing a deluxe hotel in the French Congo, albeit with a bit of dishonesty, forgoing the luxurious American life she once imagined.

Leah, fourteen, is hard working, a natural leader, and a fearless idealist who most shares her father’s religious passion. She relishes education and especially Anatole, the man who is her teacher and whom she will marry. She is the daughter who becomes part of the fabric of Africa in the most authentic way, by moving with her husband and their four sons to Angola. Invigorated by a vision of a just society, she and Anatole help Angolan citizens reclaim their heritage and their country.

Adah cites her twin Leah’s dominant personality for stealing more than her share in the womb, leaving Adah to be born mute and crippled. Because she does not waste time trying to vocally describe what is happening around her, she is a brilliant observer. Adah returns to the United States, is healed of both her infirmities, and becomes a dedicated physician who studies viruses, an apt occupation for someone influenced by early life in Africa. She is the one who comforts Orleanna in her mother’s old age.

Ruth May at five is the baby, adorable and wise beyond her years. She makes friends with the tribal children, teaching them to play Mother May I, a game that becomes a plaintive elegy toward the end of the book. Ruth May is beloved by everyone in Kilanga, but it is her fate that turns the family inside out, that shows Nathan how much he has failed, and that destroys his mission to Congo.

The story exposes how completely wrong the Western world has been about Africa. From misunderstanding its rich language to its beguiling and sometimes horrific customs to assuming the indigenous people are bereft of intelligence or self-determination. Nathan of course is symbolic of wrong judgments at every turn, yet Kingsolver’s masterful writing prevents him from being a one-dimensional cartoon. However inappropriate his agenda for Congo, he is sincere in his faith and in his quest. We weep with him when he realizes he has failed to baptize his youngest child, but we do not mourn when we learn of his death.

Of my many favorite quotes, I begin with this from Orleanna: Some of us know how we came by our fortune, and some of us don’t, but we wear it all the same. There’s only one question worth asking now: How do we aim to live with it?

From Rachel: I shut my eyes tight, but even so, the tears ran down. I wept for the sins of all who had brought my family to this dread dark shore.

From Leah: Our journey was to be a great enterprise of balance. My father, of course, was bringing the Word of God – which fortunately weighs nothing at all.

From Adah: It is true I do not speak as well as I can think. But that is true of most people, as nearly as I can tell.

From Ruth May: If somebody was hungry, why would they have a big fat belly? I don’t know.

Each of these quotes, all of them early in the book, exposes a significant part of this multi-layered story and also reveals the personalities of the speakers. What moved me the most was how arrogant and assuming Nathan Price was, as well as a few other white people. Though some of the Congolese were confrontational or untrustworthy, as would be some people in any given population, this is their land. The richness of their culture sustains them even in hard times yet Price sees them only as ignorant folks who need agricultural education and Christianity to better their lives. He is unable to understand that what they need is nothing he has to offer, but freedom from a dominating and patronizing European government.

Written in chapters that echo the books of the Bible, each section shows the dissolution of impractical dreams and the creation of work that might truly sustain the inhabitants while respecting their history. The book ends with an epilogue that bookends the story. The mother and her four daughters walk through an African market, recalling the walk through the forest made decades earlier. Everything is changed, of course, everything about their lives and about Africa is different. As Ruth May notes, “Every life is different because you passed this way and touched history. Everyone is complicit.”

It is a long story. My regret is that I came to the end of it and had finally to say good bye to the country, to the Price family, and to the Africans who peopled the land. Do not think I have already told you the whole story. I have told you nothing. Only Barbara Kingsolver can tell you the story of The Poisonwood Bible. Make yourself comfortable, open the book, immerse yourself in its pages. Read.

I look forward to learning about your favorite P fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for P:

Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson

A Painted House by John Grisham

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

Peace like a River by Leif Enger

The Pearl by John Steinbeck

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

The Persian Boy by Mary Renault

Plainsong by Kent Haruf

Prague by Arthur Phillips

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

The Princess Bride by William Goldman

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Perennial

O is for One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn was first published in Russian in 1962, in English in 1963. I originally had another book in mind for O, (On the Road) but given the current political situation, I feel this is a book to remind us of the dangers of a totalitarian government. It’s as hard a book to read as any, not for its length (it’s little more than a novella at 150 pages) but for the presentation of the brutality of life in the Soviet prison system. It portrays a government that represses people not for crimes they’ve committed but for political advantage and retribution, raising a virtual cudgel over a populace with little recourse for defense, terrifying people who understand that the next person accused might be them.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov is a political prisoner, a man falsely convicted of spying at the end of World War II. This one day in his life is a day like every other, a day closer to his freedom if he can survive the quixotic events that threaten his safety at every moment. He’s woken up ill, one more misery to add to his usual bleak condition. Too late for a place at the infirmary, he trudges with the rest of his unit out of the camp to a construction site. There he engages in the mindless work of building a brick wall. In the Soviet gulag, building a wall in such freezing temperatures is a Sisyphean feat. Nothing works correctly unless the laborers work at a feverish pitch, tasks nearly impossible to achieve because of the primitive quality of their tools and materials.

Shukhov is always hungry, tired, cold, and undernourished. His bed is uncomfortable, his clothing inadequate, his shoes thin, his life monotonous, and he has little to look forward to except surviving this one day. To anticipate anything else is futile; the gulag is not a place for daydreams but for enforced effort. Yet he fosters friendships among other prisoners and guards, trades favors for food, and carefully navigates a complex hierarchy that safeguards him from extra punishment. He manages to augment his small stash of contraband. He engages in conversations about the meaning of life, whether there is a heaven, and how small luxuries comprise happiness in the gulag.

Throughout the day, we see the prisoners reduced to insignificant parts of the system by which they’re incarcerated. Shukhov and the others are treated as though they are disposable, with only superficial concern for their well-being. They awake to a relentless regimen of being identified as a number, getting searched, marching across a frozen landscape, enduring manual labor in subfreezing conditions, and marching back to the dormitories at night. Eating is a crucial part of the day and Shukhov manages a few extra rations, a blissful moment. Lying in his bunk at night, he counts the number of days left to bear before he will be free. It’s been one day, like all the rest, and a day unlike anything I’ve ever encountered.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was in fact a prisoner of the gulag and wrote about it in other books, notably The Gulag Archipelago. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is the only book he was able to publish in the Soviet Union. All his other books were published in the West because of the political controversy surrounding his work. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for the body of his work, but like fellow Russian, Boris Pasternak, did not accept it for fear of reprisal at home. Though the book appears to be critical of the Soviet system, Solzhenitsyn’s political position about his country was complicated, a situation I’m not qualified to address.

I remember being so transfixed by this grim, spare account of Soviet incarceration that I sat at a rock concert with my hands around the book, reading. Certainly I was shocked by such hardship imposed on men but also by the callous attitude of a system intent on meting out punishment without or regard for human rights. Every word beat against my heart. To live in a country like the United States where human rights are analogous to our concept of democracy, and compare it to a totalitarian government where people are less important than bricks, horrified me. The book anchored my sense of the inalienable right of justice not only because our Constitution says we are so entitled, but because my understanding of humanity anchors my foundation of decency. That our current president abridges such rights without regard for the Constitutional independence of the three branches of government and without consequence makes me fear for our democracy. It all beats against my heart.

I look forward to learning about your favorite O fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for O:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

The Once and Future King by T.H. White

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Signet Classic

 

N is for Night in Shanghai

Night in Shanghai by Nicole Mones is historical fiction based on 1930’s Shanghai, the period in Chinese history where it is shackled by the corruption of controlling gangs to the period where it is invaded by the Japanese during World War II, finally reclaimed by Chinese leadership, only to be shackled again, now by the unforgiving ideology of communism. Against this backdrop two people of differing backgrounds fall in love. It is, like all great affairs, an unlikely attraction of doomed passion, but it is also the stuff of love, lust, longing, and legend.

Song Yuhua is the beautiful, intelligent, and well educated translator for Du, the Chinese crime boss who runs the city’s successful nightlife, at a time when everyone comes to nightclubs to play, sing, and dance, especially to the sensation known as jazz. The subservient role of women in China is well documented, and it didn’t surprise me to learn that Song was given in bondage to Du in order to cover her father’s gambling debts. She navigates a violent Shanghai underworld where loyalty to the kingpin rewards her with comfort and admiration but retribution for betrayal may cost her life.

Thomas Greene is a young African-American man. He has been trained to play classical piano, a skill ignored in the United States where his talent carries no value because of his race. Music informs his life completely yet segregation in Baltimore offers him nothing. Impoverished and despondent, he’s offered a job to play with a band in China. Thomas accepts, escaping the squalor and inequality that is the standard of Black life in 1930’s America. China offers him freedom and a luxurious life with a home, servants, and clothes inaccessible to him in America. He doesn’t let on to his new boss that he has no idea how to play jazz, but the other band members quickly discover his ineptitude.

These two young people of extraordinary talent suffer with their own histories of subjugation, one owned by a man as is custom in her country, the other finding more freedom in his adopted country than he will ever enjoy in the land where he was born. Enraged by the duplicity of her bondage, Song hides the fact that she is spying on her kingpin boss for the emerging Communist rebels living in northern caves. Thomas struggles to understand the intuitive improvisation required of jazz, finally achieving a level of skill admired by the rest of his band and loved by the club attendees.

Seeing each other across the floor of the dance hall, it is no surprise that they are drawn together. Still, their relationship remains unconsummated while their romance grows, until one night when it is obvious that the Japanese are at the threshold of Shanghai, the invasion only moments away. At such fever pitch, Song and Thomas finally find solace in each other’s arms. As any couple would ponder, they are in doubt if their love affair will survive the destruction of the country. Will it ever be safe for either of them? The tension adds gravitas to their dilemma about where they owe their most allegiance – to their cultures or to themselves.

A secondary plotline addresses one of Thomas’ friends, a Jewish violinist with whom he can share his affection for classical music. In  addition, the book presents the efforts of a Chinese diplomat to offer sanctuary to 100,000 Jews trying to flee Nazi Germany to a district in northern China. That this event really happened points up the cosmopolitan and influential persona of the city. On the verge of war from one front and revolution from another, the plan never comes to fruition; it becomes one more failure to save Jewish lives, nevertheless initiated with sincerity.

History books, often brilliantly written and researched, give the timelines, maps, treaties, names of actual players, and outcomes of an era. But historical fiction provides the heartbeat. Mones weaves complex history with dexterity, the result of masterful writing and a vision of individuals snagged in conflicts, both personal and political. Brought to an intimate scale, readers feel the upheaval of China through the eyes of her characters. Throughout the book reigns a sense of Shanghai taking a last, desperate breath before dying as a colonial larva and emerging as a communist moth. We all know of the millions of people whose lives were cast aside like empty pupa along the path to a new Chinese nationhood. Night in Shanghai left me longing for justice – and love.

I look forward to learning about your favorite N fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for N:

National Velvet by Enid Bagnold

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks

Number the Stars by Lois Lowry

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt  

 

 

 

M is for The Marriage of Opposites

the-marriage-of-oppositesThe Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman is one of many novels I’ve loved by this author, this one being a more recent title in her long career. Hoffman is a consummate writer whose skill has matured, nearly always enriched by the magical realism that identifies her style from her earliest work. Marriage is historical fiction based on the life of Rachel Pomie, the mother of the French Impressionist painter, Camille Pissaro, her youngest and most favorite child. The Pomie family lives on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s when it’s still a colony governed by Denmark, a situation made more restrictive for the Jewish residents who are bound to island rules and also the expectations of their religious community.

Hoffman immerses us into the native folk remedies and superstitions, stories and food, language and history of St. Thomas. The island is a vivid character in the story, and we feel and see her in the seductive scent of frangipani blossoms that pervade its air, the blazing flamboyant (Poinciana) trees that blanket it with red fever, and the tropical storms that ravage it, threatening the shoreline huts where the poor live. Always there are intense colors, notably “haint blue,” promising protection from demons and sorrow, but also hinting of the passion for painting that one day will inspire the young Camille before he is sent to Paris to study art.

Written in first person from Rachel’s point of view, she states, “I was a girl who knew what I wanted…a country where the moon rose like a silver disc into a cold, clear sky.” Young Rachel’s life is privileged as only the child of wealthy Europeans transplanted to a tiny humid island in the Caribbean can be. Her isolation is abated by reading the stories in her father’s library, filling her with her own stories. She is friends with Jestine, the beautiful, half caste daughter of Adelle, the wise native woman who is her family’s maid. Indulged, headstrong, and rebellious, Rachel is at constant loggerheads with her mother who expects her to submit to the demands of her social class. She dreams of Paris – the fashion, the elegant civilization, and especially the cold climate. When his business is threatened, her father arranges a marriage that solidifies the family’s fortune. Rachel marries a widower with young children from a first marriage, and though she never loves him, she does love his three children and bears him four more.

At the crux of the book are the many love affairs that disregard social conventions, yet flourish despite snubbing by the most important residents. Rachel herself suggests she will never marry but does, and finally finds true love with Frederic, the nephew of her dead husband. Jestine, Adelle’s daughter and Rachel’s friend, falls in love with Rachel’s cousin, Aaron. Both women are forbidden to marry the men they love because of laws prohibiting familial or interracial marriages. Rachel and Frederic defy Jewish law and have four children born out of wedlock, scandalizing the community which ostracizes the family. Jestine’s and Aaron’s beautiful, nearly white little daughter is kidnapped and taken to Paris under the premise that her life will be so much better than what her half black mother could provide.

Flouting all rules, both women remain devoted to their men. Ironically, decades later Rachel cannot abide by her son Camille’s love for a French woman who is not Jewish. Thus comes true her mother’s curse, “I hope you have a child that causes you the misery you have caused me.” The passions, suffering, betrayals, and hypocrisies of one generation do not translate as sympathy for the next, and it is many years of loneliness before Rachel understands that much of her misery is a by-product of her own prejudices.  She notes, “You couldn’t see love, or touch it, or taste it, yet it could destroy you and leave you in the dark, chasing after your own destiny.” Indeed, love lures her, drains her, and consumes her.

From the emotional stew of this complex story emerges the passionate painter who will become the Father of Impressionism, a man whose art opposed convention in search of ground breaking artistic acuity. It is this rebellious young man who responds to Jestine’s heartache for her lost daughter and helps reunite them. Rachel Pomie’s life was shackled by her time and her culture yet she bequeathed a fiercely independent spirit to her son who founded one of the world’s most beloved art movements.

Alice Hoffman wove much of the historical Rachel Pomie into the fabrication of her story. The Marriage of Opposites reveals a determination for identity and self realization where opposing forces sometimes tear each other to shreds but occasionally, sublimely benefit each other. As a woman, a writer, an artist, a wife, a mother, and a Jew, I am indebted to Rachel Pomie and grateful to have met her through Hoffman’s book.

I look forward to learning about your favorite M fiction books.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for M:

The Magus by John Fowles

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

The Merlin Trilogy (3 books plus one more) by Mary Stewart

The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

Mila 18 by Leon Uris

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Moloka’i by Alan Brennert

Mudbound by Hilary Martel

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Simon & Schuster Paperbacks

 

 

L is for Like Water for Chocolate

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Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel immersed me into a life I would never had imagined and yet convinced me I was standing at the edge of Tita De La Garza’s world, watching as her story unfolded. Tita is a the youngest daughter in a Mexican family whose tradition demands that she will serve her mother her entire life, never marrying and forgoing any life for herself. You may scoff at such an antiquated idea but if you’ve been forced to submission by a dominating parent, as I was, you know it is possible. Yet Tita doesn’t lose herself completely. She is a talented, creative, passionate woman who falls so deeply in love with a man that it informs her entire life even as it consumes her.

Born in the ranch kitchen amidst a flood of her mother’s tears, Tita is bound to her family’s traditions. Each chapter begins with an elaborate recipe, one that Tita as a master cook prepares for her family and guests. Each recipe represents the richness of Mexican life as well as Tita’s inner spirit, flavoring the food she prepares with native spices and her emotional mien at the time. The story is cast against the background of the Mexican revolution at the turn of the twentieth century. One of Tita’s sisters, after eating one of her meals, runs off to join a zealous young revolutionary, eventually becoming the independent woman Tita could not.

Imagine these clichés made sensuous with Esquivel’s masterful use of magic realism – Crying a river of tears. Tita cries so much over the impending wedding of her sister to her own beloved, Pedro, arranged because her mother will not let Tita marry, that the wedding cake she’s baked is poisoned by her bitterness, making the guests ill.

A life unraveled. Tita tries to transfer her love for Pedro into the practical creation of a crocheted bedspread. Being driven away from her mother’s home at last by a well-intentioned doctor, Tita’s trousseau bedspread unrolls behind the cart in a mile long spill of lost dreams and denied aspirations.

Nursing one’s wounds. Tita despairs of ever marrying her true love and bearing children, but she claims limited victory by nursing a newborn infant, the one born to Pedro and her sister, who has no milk. (“How can that possibly happen?” science demands, and magical realism responds, “It’s a story, relax and enjoy.”)

Haunted by the ghosts of one’s past. Tita, sorrowful after her mother’s death, is haunted throughout the rest of the book by her mother’s angry ghost who continues to torment her. No matter how Tita tries to excise herself from Mama Elena, the ghost haunts Tita and the rest of the family, reminding everyone of their obligations and failures. Eventually, Tita discovers one of her mother’s ghosts, a past history that proves she was not always chaste and noble.

Love is like a fire in one’s belly. Tita’s love and desire for self-realization collide with the reality of a ruthless, unjust world, just as the revolution brings violence to the country in its quest for freedom from political and social repression. So much so that Tita, given a recipe for making matches, finally has the means to declare her personal independence. When she and Pedro meet one last time, the one free of her brutal mother, the other free of the wife he never loved, she eats matches and lights her home on fire with her passion, burning it to the ground. The only survivor is the recipe book.

The title, Like Water for Chocolate, offers many interpretations of meaning. The one I most prefer is that true love cannot be replaced by a thin imitation. Though John proposes marriage to Tita, Pedro is the man she truly loves, and just as water is a bland substitute for chocolate, John cannot take his place. The story is suffused with sexual energy, exotic descriptions of food, the conflict between society’s expectations and the liberty promised by revolution.

My favorite line from the book is spoken by Dr. John Brown, the man who brings Tita to his home so she can recover from the catatonic state brought about by her mother’s relentless cruelty. “My grandmother had a very interesting theory; she said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by themselves.” It’s the incentive that ultimately allows Tita to experience sexual fulfillment with Pedro but also her freedom from the constraints of strangling traditions.

Sympathetic to Tita’s predicament, I was mesmerized by Esquivel’s ability to portray so many characters with fully dimensional personalities, showing them as flawed and therefore believable as they were noble. The plot is never predictable, the outcome fulfilling though unconventional. Each of us has the potential to endure a personal revolution by confronting our demons and overcoming our deficiencies. Tita reminds me of all I have yet to achieve.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for L:

The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Little Bee by Chris Cleave

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Lord of the Rings (entire trilogy) by J.R.R. Tolkien

Lust for Life by Irving Stone

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite L fiction books.

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Knopf, Doubleday Publishing Group

 

K is for To Kill a Mockingbird

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To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one of the most read and most beloved books ever, though it garners criticism as well. Certainly it’s on the very top of my book list of personal favorites. I read it in about 1965 or ’66, then reread it immediately, again a few years later when I was in college, and during my two sons’ high school years so we could discuss the book. I’ve read it twice since, each time discovering something wondrous, gaining more insight, and always moved by the story.

It’s told from the point of view of Scout, the very young daughter of a small town 1950’s Southern lawyer. You don’t have to know much about American bus routes to grasp that it concerns racial prejudice, social inequality, and a legal-political tradition that safe-harbors injustice. It’s also about family dynamics and the social clumsiness of children who discover that the adult world is dirtier than theirs. It presents a criminal case where a black man is found guilty for a white man’s crimes. You have to be living inside your vacuum cleaner not to know that the characters were sketched from people Lee knew in the Alabama hamlet where she grew up, especially that Dill, Scout and Jem’s childhood friend, stands in for Truman Capote.

One of the most unusual characters is the shy recluse, Boo Radley. His reasons for hiding from the public appear strange if not bizarre, and augur Harper Lee’s adult voluntary social seclusion. Something from Boo’s past keeps him captive. The something in Lee’s life was the dizzying adulation of the world thrust upon her at publication of the book. The excessive stir  caused Lee to refuse to write or publish another book in her lifetime or to talk about Mockingbird. She’d done the celebrity thing and found it too painful to forget or repeat.

Which brings me to the tale of Go Set a Watchman, the book miraculously found by Lee’s trustee – after Lee’s protective sister, Alice, died, and when Lee herself was aged, frail, ill, blind, deaf, and may have been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Miracle of all miracles, the trustee found the secreted manuscript just as the very private Harper Lee was eager to seek new publicity and earn millions. Wonder of wonders, wasn’t it?

If you’ve managed to keep away from all things front page breaking news for the past ten years, you may not know about the background of the Watchman. It wasn’t a newly written manuscript that Lee wanted to publish – it was the original first draft of Mockingbird as presented to her original editor, Tay Hohoff. Hohoff knew the story as first written was not ready for publication but saw in its ragged genesis a gemstone ready for polish. With Hohoff’s assistance, Lee rewrote the first draft, (took a long time) and after several new title tries, settled on the memorable To Kill a Mockingbird.

Two things must be considered. The first is an admonition for the writer-in-waiting: your book, my book, is not ready, it’s not done, and when attentive people offer advice: put your ego in the shoebox, listen well, take notes, make appropriate changes, and get the job done. Just as Lee did. She might not have anticipated the painful glare of the limelight, but she was a willing rewriter. So am I. So should you be.

Second thing for me is this. I will not read Go Set a Watchman. Clearly Lee did not want the early draft, rejected by Hohoff as amateur and unsuitable in places, to be read by anyone else. It was a work in progress; the finished work as published was the one intended for the public eyes. Lippencott, the initial publisher, made plenty on Mockingbird. It’s interesting for writers to read another writer’s early attempts and to compare a finished product with a draft. But only if the writer is willing.

If the finished book promoted ideas of honor and compassion, I find it shameful and craven to read the early iteration, and I don’t believe for a moment that Lee authorized its publication. New trustee and cohort misappropriated Lee’s manuscript when she was too feeble to advocate for herself. Trustee, cohort, and publisher chose to capitalize on Lee’s name and stature in order to roll their bottom line into the big black column. I won’t help boost their bucks.

We will never really know if To Kill a Mockingbird set back Harper Lee’s literary career by stifling her ability to write another story, or if she really so dreaded all the public slathering that she couldn’t bear to tempt it again. I’ve long been disappointed not to be able to read another of her books, and if I can’t really understand her decision, (try to make me stop writing, just try) I surely respect it. I believe in social justice, equality, and opportunity for all people, and this book shows how a few citizens of a little town in Alabama stood up for what was right, even in the midst of threats and violence. I am still standing for same.

My favorite line from the book is the entire book. If you’ve never read it, go read it. If you haven’t read it in a while, go read it again.

To Kill a Mockingbird won the Pulitzer Prize and has not been out of print since its publication in 1960. It was selected by American Librarians as the best novel of the twentieth century, is required reading in Great Britain and Canada as in most American high schools, and has been translated into more than forty languages. Don’t read it for all that adulation. Read it because it mirrors the tragic renewal of the same narrow, bigoted mind set of the last century blossoming in all it ugly bullying in this one as well. Read it because few other books will touch you as deeply and permanently.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for K:

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite K fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins

 

J is for Jude the Obscure

 

judeobscureJude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy is a dour story of oppressive nineteenth century English societal and religious restrictions and the ominous consequences of rebelling against them. Why would I choose such a grim book as a favorite in this series?

I’ll begin with why I read the book in the first place because had I a different choice, I wouldn’t have. It was my senior year of college and proving rough for me to graduate. It wasn’t that I was such a lousy student though I could have been much better had I applied myself with more focus. My financial circumstances were stretched to a vanishing point. I couldn’t afford another semester of college though I really needed to go on to graduate school. (I never did but that’s another story.) I was engaged, our wedding planned for spring about six months away.

It was my final semester and though I was supposed to have priority registration, I didn’t. My senior seminar had to be one of about eight literary masters classes offered that semester, among them Shakespeare, Hemingway, and a half dozen other lions whose books I loved and longed to study. Whatever I selected, it would be a course taught by a full professor and attended by two dozen or so serious, advanced literature students whose discussions would illumine my knowledge of letters for life. But who the heck was Thomas Hardy?

Didn’t matter that I didn’t know a thing about this Englishman. The class was the only one not yet filled. The choice was made for me by an absence of options and a lack of finesse about the inside track on how to get into a desired class. Hardy it was – and I couldn’t have been more fortunate. Once immersed, I realized I did know a bit about him: his novel Far from the Madding Crowd, made famous by the movie in which Julie Christie played the beautiful, headstrong, sexy Bathsheba Everdene. And that was it, all I knew until the course syllabus required that I read many of his poems and several of his novels, including Tess of the d’Urbervilles, The Mayor Of Casterbridge, and The Return of the Native, as well as Madding.

I remember the book for the ill fated characters. Jude Fawley yearns to be a scholar but abandons his noble quest as he cannot bridge the chasm between his low social status and poverty, and the upper echelons of academia. It resonated with me as I struggled to complete my undergraduate classes. Arabella Donn is a crass and lusty woman who tricks him into marriage and defeats his aspirations of bettering himself for the practical needs of supporting a wife. Sue Bridehead is the woman he loves, an independent spirit and initially a religious skeptic who later becomes obsessed by Christianity and believes she must be punished for earlier moral transgressions. Little Father Time is Jude’s son with Arabella. He’s an old soul in a child’s body who later comes to live with his father and Sue, now in a relationship that produces two children without benefit of marriage. Written when Hardy had become disillusioned by the limited opportunities of the poor and the church’s dominance of English society, the negative reviews of the book threw him into such despondency that he never wrote another novel.

Even more than the well rendered characters are two grisly scenes that haunt me fifty years after my first reading. Reunited with Arabella, Jude must butcher a pig according to her demands for a cruel, lengthy bloodletting that will guarantee a higher price. Jude cannot stomach the animal’s screams – neither could I. More disturbing is the act committed by Little Father Time. Jude, Sue, and the three children are ostracized by church and society for living in sin. Little Father Time tries to alleviate his parents’ dire circumstances by hanging his younger siblings and then killing himself. I’ve seen thousands of TV and movie murders and deaths, a few in real life, but nothing matches the horror of the boy’s misguided act. Hardy exposes the influence of rigid cultural mores on people deeply in love, struggling with humble everyday activities, simply trying to provide for their children. Few books resonate with as much sorrow and tragedy.

My favorite line from the book reveals Jude’s thoughts on his fervent pursuit of Sue Bridehead. “Onward he still went, under the influence of a childlike yearning for the one being in the world to whom it seemed possible to fly.”

Jude the Obscure, written in 1895, remains a compelling story, one that resonates with contemporary conflicts and complex social implications. That Hardy anticipated modern concerns 120 years ago suggests a writer of timeless insight. In an age when so many struggle to write a cogent text message, and reduce urgent situations to what can be written in a tweet, most of us could learn a great deal from Jude and Hardy.

 

Other books that were serious contenders for J:

Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Justine by Lawrence Durrell (the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet; all four books are worthy of reading)

 

I look forward to learning about your favorite J fiction books.

 

Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Penguin Classics