Go Set a Watchman and Prejudice

Image result for go set a watchmanWhat was it about?

Jean Louise returns to Maycomb County after living for years in New York. Her father Atticus is now in his 70s, and she is courted by her childhood friend Henry. Jean Louise is still rambunctious and independent, but it looks like her family has changed. One day she finds evidence that her father and uncle have been attending the Maycomb County citizen’s council. Atticus speaks out against the recent Supreme Court ruling outlawing segregation. He only defended that black boy for professional reasons. The Supreme Court overstepped its boundaries. Atticus must continue to defend black people, otherwise the NAACP will.

Jean Louise is horrified. Her father had been her role model, but she had been deceived. He had deceived her. How can she ever love her father again? Go Set a Watchman is Harper Lee’s controversial sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. For the first time, Jean Louise (and the reader) has to face the unpleasant truth about the character of a beloved lawyer and father.

What did I think of it?

I put off reading this book for a long time because of all the controversy surrounding the publishing of Go Set a Watchman. I also admired Atticus Finch like so many other Americans. But in the past year, I have become increasingly interested in the dark side of humanity (evil, prejudice, and guilt). I knew that I needed to read GSAW. 

Even though it was very poorly edited (I believe it was only a first draft), GSAW will probably be one of my favorite books of 2017. This is the only book that I have ever read that explores prejudice from the white perspective. Growing up, I was taught that racism was something that existed 50 years ago, but is no longer an institutional problem in America. We were so wrong. Like Jean Louise, we thought of Atticus as the exception to the rule – the white savior who represented the “good” white man. Unfortunately, this image of Atticus has prevented us from having a serious discussion about prejudice. GSAW is so hard to read because it is clear that Atticus is not an entirely bad person. As long as we assume that only “bad” people are capable of prejudice, institutional prejudice will continue to exist in America.

Atticus is an educated man. He justifies his prejudice with reasoned argumentation. Prejudice is so hard to combat because the person who is prejudiced thinks his/her beliefs are reasonable. The “white trash” image of prejudice is so convenient because it allows the rest of us to wash our hands of the problem. As long as we pretend that only “uneducated” people are capable of prejudice, we will keep pretending that America is colorblind, and people of color will continue to face oppression. Jean Louise might think she is innocent, but a closer look at her character reveals that she too is guilty of racism.

I may not be white, but facing my own personal prejudices in the past year has been one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. For very personal reasons, I am so glad I read GSAW. In general, I strongly believe that TKAM and GSAW should be read together.

Favorite Quote

“A man can condemn his enemies, but it’s wiser to know them.”

Review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

FairylandbyCatherynneValente.jpgWhat was it about?

While washing dishes one day, twelve-year-old September is suddenly whisked away from her home in Omaha, Nebraska to Fairyland by the Green Wind and the Leopard of Little Breezes. She befriends a wyvern named A-Through-L, saves a marid named Saturday, and goes on a mission to retrieve a sword for the Marquess, who is the dictator of Fairyland. September struggles to understand Fairyland, remember the Green Wind’s rules, and escape from the traps set by the Marquess. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente is the first book of the Fairyland series, which ended this year. It is an adventure in the tradition of Alice in WonderlandThe Neverending Story, and The Wizard of Oz. September goes on a quest to save her friends from the Marquess even though she’d rather return home to her mother.

What did I think of it?

This is a strange book. The creatures are odd and the rules of Fairyland are so unlike those of our world. I found it hard at times to follow the action and remember the prohibitions. The Green Wind gives September a list of prohibitions at the beginning of the adventure, but I must admit that I forgot them immediately after they were named. Still, the story was straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could reasonably follow it. I liked how it was hard for September to categorize the creatures she met. A-Through-L looks like a dragon, but he believes he is half-library (!). Saturday looks like a fairy, but he only grants wishes if he is forced into submission. We, like September, have to learn about Fairyland mostly from scratch. Our expectations are constantly called into question. The characters are multi-dimensional; nothing is black or white. It looks like the Fairyland series will break common fairy-tale tropes. I do worry though about the direction the story is taking. I was not fully satisfied with the twist at the end of the first book. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is not the first fairy-tale adventure ever written. I have read plenty. Some I’ve loved (such as The Neverending StoryThe Little Prince, and Gulliver’s Travels) and some I’ve not liked as much (such as The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland). Late medieval religious and secular literature has also exposed me to quite a lot of allegory, so if an author employs allegory it better be good. I have very high expectations. I was not disappointed by the first book in the Fairyland series, but it didn’t wow me. It is simply too soon for me to tell whether I will love the series or not. I may need to reread the first book before continuing because (as I indicated) I forgot a lot of details.

Favorite Quote

“That’s what happens to friends, eventually. They leave you. It’s practically what they’re for.”

Review of Out of the Dust

What was it about?

Billie Joe is growing up during the Depression and Dust Bowl period of the 30s in Oklahoma. Her mother has died, she suffers from horrible burns on her hands, and she can no longer relate to her father. In a series of poems written in blank verse Billie Joe describes her hobbies, family, and schooling from 1934 through 1935. Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse won the Newbery Medal in 1998.

What did I think of it?

It seems to me that the Association for Library Service to Children likes to award Newbery Medals to really depressing books written for middle grade students. Out of the Dust is one of those books. If it had not been written in blank verse the book would have been unsuitable for children. The subject matter is just too tragic. However, this work is a good introduction for children to an important period in American history. Because it is written in verse, middle grade students should not be too disturbed by the content. My only major criticism is that the narrative style did not really add much to the story. While a few poems left an impression on me, most of them weren’t very memorable. What Billie Joe was trying to communicate could have been communicated just as effectively if not more effectively in prose. All in all, it was a pretty underwhelming read. I don’t know what other children’s books were published in 1997, but I didn’t think Out of the Dust was as good as some of the other award winners.

Favorite Poem

Breaking Drought

After seventy days
of wind and sun,
of wind and clouds,
of wind and sand,
after seventy days,
of wind and dust,
a little
rain
came.

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge

Review of Parnassus on Wheels

What was it about?

Helen McGill’s brother Andrew is at once a farmer and a famous author. Unfortunately, he doesn’t spend enough time caring for the farm, leaving most of the farm responsibilities as well as all of the housework to his sister. One day, while Andrew is out of town, Helen sees a wagon parked outside of the farmhouse. The wagon is filled with books, and the owner wants to sell it to Andrew for 400 dollars. Helen thinks Andrew owns enough books, and a wagon of books would only encourage him to neglect the farm more. After some negotiation, Helen offers to buy the wagon from the owner, Roger Mifflin. Mifflin has spent the last few years covering the region with his traveling bookshop Parnassus on Wheels. He intends to sell his business to someone who loves literature and who wants to share the love of reading with children and adults in the countryside. Helen accepts the challenge. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley is a short but delightful adventure about books, friendship, and life.

What did I think of it?

There is no better place to buy a book like Parnassus on Wheels than from a book sale. And that is where I bought my copy. Parnassus on Wheels is a fun book to read on a sunny day. Books and authors are referenced throughout, and Helen is a compelling protagonist. There could have been more of a discussion about the merits of literacy, and the literary references could have been more elegantly and subtly woven into the tale, but I was still satisfied by the story. Sometimes you have to read something light and fun. Parnassus on Wheels was that book.

Favorite Quote

“What absurd victims of contrary desires we are! If a man is settled in one place he yearns to wander; when he wanders he yearns to have a home. And yet how bestial is content—all the great things in life are done by discontented people.”

Review of Roverandom


What was it about?

A real dog named Rover is transformed into a toy by a wizard he offended. Two boys play with the toy until Rover manages to get away through the help of the sand-sorcerer Psamathos Psamathides. Rover (later renamed Roverandom) meets the Man-in-the-Moon, flies on the back of a seagull, and encounters a ferocious dragon all while searching for the wizard who transformed him into a toy. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien is a fantastical adventure riddled with wordplay and literary references.

What did I think of it?

Although Tolkien wrote Roverandom for his four-year-old son Michael, it was published after Tolkien’s death. Tolkien’s writing never ceases to impress me. He has a great mastery of the English language and creates such odd creatures. None of these elements were lacking in this book. However, it was very obvious to me that Roverandom was an unfinished, unedited work. At times, it was hard for me to follow Roverandom’s adventures. None of the characters were developed and there was no rhyme or reason to the magic in the book. It was quite a forgettable story. The illustrations were beautiful, but they were stuck in the middle of the book, so I didn’t always know what scenes they were supposed to depict. I also wish the editor had used footnotes instead of end-notes. I didn’t realize there were notes to the text until after I finished the story. If you are a Tolkien completionist then by all means read Roverandom. I am glad that I read it, but it definitely left much to be desired.

Favorite Quote

“Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man; some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.”

 

Review of The Phantom Tollbooth

What was it about?

Milo is bored. He is no longer interested in the toys and books he owns. Suddenly, he notices a package in the corner of his room. As it is neither Christmas nor his birthday, Milo doesn’t know what the package is for, but he is curious to unwrap it. The package contains a turnpike tollbooth with instructions for constructing it. It also includes highway signs and coins for paying tolls. Milo gets inside a toy car, drives up to the tollbooth, and is transported to a world in which words are food, watchdogs keep time, and numbers are mined but real gems discarded. In this Kingdom of Wisdom, two brothers (King Azaz the unabridged and the Mathemagician) live on opposite sides of the kingdom because of their rivalry over whether words or numbers are more important. Unfortunately, the rivalry led to the banishment of their adopted sisters Princesses Rhyme and Reason to the Castle in the Air. With King Azaz’s support, Milo, the watchdog Tock, and a prideful insect named Humbug set off for the Castle in the Air to rescue Princesses Rhyme and Reason and bring peace and harmony back to the Kingdom of Wisdom.

What did I think of it?

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster is replete with wordplay, metaphors, and common expressions. I personally enjoy didactic tales for children wrapped up as fables/fantasy stories. The Phantom Tollbooth is of this tradition. It is witty, and insightful. Children can enjoy meeting the wacky monsters, and teenagers and adults can pick up on all the clever wordplay. Parts reminded me of La Grammaire est une Chanson Douce (Grammar is a Sweet, Gentle Song) by Erik Orsenna, which I read for one of my French classes last semester. Parts also reminded me of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the Disney film Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land. The illustrations by Jules Feiffer brought the story to life. They were an essential component of the story because they helped me imagine the creatures in the Kingdom of Wisdom. I highly recommend The Phantom Tollbooth.

Favorite Quotes

“Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life.”

“You can’t improve sound by having only silence. The problem is to use each at the proper time.”

“Infinity is a dreadfully poor place. They can never manage to make ends meet.”

 

Review of Adam of the Road

AdamOfTheRoad.JPGWhat was it about?

Adam attends a preparatory school, befriends a boy named Perkin, and secretly cares for a stray dog named Nick. But Adam is not like any other child at the school. He is the son of Roger Quartermayne, a well-known minstrel in the kingdom. Adam dreams of being like his father and living life on the road. But he never expected the journey to start so soon. All of a sudden, Adam is separated from Roger and Nick. Over the course of the story, Adam takes an unintended pilgrimage through thirteenth century England, meeting new places and new faces at every turn of the road. Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray is about one boy’s search for his father and a purpose in life.

What did I think of it?

Good historical fiction is hard to find. Many bestsellers are sensationalist but can hardly be considered historical. Adam of the Road is quite the opposite. The sights and sounds of thirteenth century England come alive in this children’s book; the time period is described in such a way that the reader feels fully immersed in the world. The writing is as simple and unassuming as Adam’s journey.

But despite the elegance of the narrative, the story lacks a plot or a purpose. I know that Adam of the Road is supposed to be more about the journey than the end goal, but the journey is quite underwhelming. The people Adam meets don’t really leave a lasting impression on him. To be perfectly honest, it was a boring story. I love a good character study, but Adam isn’t a very compelling character. It is never clear how the people he meets contribute to his personal growth.

Overall, I thought the book was OK. My expectations going into the book may have been too high, but I wasn’t really wowed by anything. Adam of the Road won the Newbery Medal in 1943. I can certainly understand why the Newbery committee thought this book was deserving of the medal. With respect to historical accuracy and plausibility, this is historical fiction at its finest. I just did not find it very memorable.

Favorite Quote

“A road’s a kind of holy thing,” said Roger the Minstrel to his son, Adam. “That’s why it’s a good work to keep a road in repair, like giving alms to the poor or tending the sick. It’s open to the sun and wind and rain. It brings all kinds of people and all parts of England together. And it’s home to a minstrel, even though he may happen to be sleeping in a castle.”

This book counts toward the Newbery Medal Challenge