Thursday, November 3, 2011

What I read in October

Here's my monthly summary of the books I've been reading (it was the month of Harper Lee). Click the titles to read more detailed reviews at Marie's Book Garden. Let me know if you've read any of these books or have any thoughts by leaving a comment. I love hearing what other people think about books I've read!

Book I enjoyed the most:

I chose to reread To Kill a Mockingbird because my book group choice for the month was a biography of Harper Lee (see below). I hadn't read this book since high school. Now that I'm older and wiser, I have a greater understanding of how remarkable it is. First of all, the fact that it was Harper Lee's first novel (and only one, as it turns out). Second, the fact that Lee grew up in a small, insular southern town and had such vision and empathy for the underprivileged. As most people know, many of the characters are based on her own life...she based Scout on herself, Dill on her best friend Truman Capote, and Atticus on her own father. Many of the minor characters, too, are based on people she knew in small-town Monroeville, Alabama.

After reading The Help a few years ago, I couldn't help but compare the two novels...both are Southern stories told from the white perspective, although To Kill a Mockingbird was based in the 1930s rather than the 1960s. In spite of the 30-year time difference, the incidents and environment didn't seem all that different.

I love Scout's character, in particular because she was such a great feminist at such an unlikely age and place. She simply did not get why girls had to be all prissy and proper when it was more fun to climb trees, read books, and play outside. To Kill a Mockingbird is a great novel on so many levels: it's a loving portrait of the American South, in spite of its evil side. It's a story of deep childhood friendship and sibling relationships, and it's a tale of justice, wisdom, and acceptance of people who are different from ourselves.

Strong Fiction

As a small child, Su-Jen arrives in a small town outside of Toronto to live with her father, whom she has never met. She and her mother have immigrated from Hong Kong, much to her mother's dismay. Su-Jen (or Annie, her Canadian name) feels completely caught between cultures as the only Chinese child in her small town in the 1960s (her parents run the one Chinese restaurant). She's constantly walking the fine line between being a good Chinese girl and growing up as a Canadian.

When Su-Jen's brother comes to stay, the family's staid but settled life gets thrown into disarray. Her mother's deep unhappiness comes to light, in addition to her father's willingness (and the Chinese cultural approach) to overlook unpleasant things to maintain peace and face. Bates beautifully describes the life of an immigrant child who is always caught in the middle, feeling as if she never fits in anywhere.

At the center of this book is Edward, a boy who begins to withdraw at age four. His mom, Rachel, and dad, Jack, try to figure out what is happening to seems like autism, but it isn't...and they resort to extreme lengths to try to help him. Rachel also discovers that her uncle, Mickey, who died before she was born, had similarities to young Edward. Bauer alternates her chapters between Rachel's story and that of Mickey, whose life changed dramatically when his beloved older brother died.

My qualms about the book were that I found it difficult to relate to the parents and their choices...I found their anguish about their son's situation to be touching and tragic, but at the same time I felt that Bauer skimped on describing what drew them together and what they were like as human beings.

Brian Doyle is a gifted writer, and without his lyrical gifts and the fact that he's well known in Portland literary circles, this book might have had a difficult time finding a publisher. Mink River is a story of a coastal Oregon town, Neawanaka, and its quirky inhabitants. Think "Northern Exposure" in Oregon rather than Alaska. At the beginning of the book, I reveled in the poetic writing and colorful descriptions of the people and the town.

The middle sags with near-complete lack of plot. At best, the plot is secondary to the setting and the characters. But I need a plot in a novel, even a poetic one. This book had much going for it, but by the time I finished it, I was ready for a more traditional novel.

Nonfiction of the Month:

This is the most complete biography of Harper Lee we have, which is not saying much. Given the fact that we know so little about Lee's life and motivations, however, this book is a great addition to the Mockingbird canon. Shields, a former English teacher, writes extensively about Lee's friendship with Truman Capote and her childhood in Alabama. The problem is that he doesn't have any direct sources of information...much of his book is based on hearsay or indirect information about Harper Lee (for example, he interviewed someone who went to college with Lee, but was in a different sorority). My book group concluded that much of this book was like a game of was hard to know how much to believe. It seemed like Shields was disappointed with the amount of information he had, so he made up extraneous details to make the book longer. I do not regret reading it, but it could have been so much better.

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