Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee was of course just published this year. Most readers will know the story behind it I suppose and I was nearly put off from reading it because I had heard that people were saying it was a badly written book, and various other negative comments. Thank goodness I decided to read it and judge for myself.

Firstly, it’s absolute nonsense to say that the book is badly written. I can only assume that people dived down that alley because they knew it had originally been rejected by a publisher. (which book hasn’t been I ask myself? ask the Brontes about their experiences!)

I suspect that Go Set a Watchman was rejected because its time had not come – yet. The subjects dealt with within the story were just too hot for the society of the day. I’m not going to say too much about the actual storyline, as is often the way with my bookish meanders. When it was written it was a contemporary novel, the publishers were obviously happier to publish a historical book which would give them fewer political headaches.

Atticus Finch is 72 years old and crippled with rheumatoid arthritis. Jean Louise has been away living in New York for the last two years, but she has travelled back to Maycomb for a holiday. She has gone by train because Atticus isn’t able to pick her up, the driving would be too much for him, and she’s shocked by the change in him.

But more shocking is the change in his attitudes to other people. He doesn’t seem to be the man that she knew and loved, the man who brought her up to be decent and unprejudiced. Atticus uses the ‘n’ word. The change has come about because there has been a shift in the attitudes of the black inhabitants of Maycomb. Previously they had known their place in the pecking order of life. No matter how hard working and decent they were they were the bottom of the pile, below the ‘white trash’ some of whom weren’t only poor but were more than a wee bit ghastly.

The NAACP have been educating the black people with the result that the old relationships between black and white folks have disappeared. The white elite of Maycomb are very unhappy about the possibility of a change in the status quo. They’re determined to hang on to the power they have and fear what would happen if the black people were seen as equals and had the vote. How could they possibly run Maycomb County, none of them are educated enough to be trusted with a vote.

But things are changing in Maycomb, not only for the black people. The men who were away at war have come back with ambitions of their own, they’ve seen more of life and they’ve brought some of it back with them.

It’s far too simplistic to see Atticus as being racist. If you’re of a certain age you’ll probably have had the experience of rolling your eyes at the archaic attitudes of elderly parents already, but such is life. Jean Louise doesn’t roll her eyes though, she’s a bit more demonstrative. She discovers that her father isn’t the hero she had thought he was, he’s just a human being, which is a massive disappointment to her.

Go Set a Watchman is about changes in society which are painful and dangerous to the people who have held the power and had all the advantages in life. It’s about snobbery too. I’ve long thought that the US is a very snobbish society, much more so than the UK which comes in way down the snobbery league tables in my experience. Where else are people given the tag ‘trash’, just because they’re poor, have a different culture/customs and haven’t been given any opportunities in life?

Atticus does give one young ‘white trash’ man a chance in life and takes him on as his protege. He’s smart and decent and thanks to Atticus has a good job and bright future ahead of him. But he’s never going to be able to get away from that ‘white trash’ tag and he’s certainly never going to be good enough for a Finch daughter to marry, according to Aunt Alexandra and Uncle Jack anyway.

I really enjoyed this book and for me it is of absolutely no interest whether it was written 50 years ago or some other time. It’s a good read.

Books and such

I hardly dare say it, but today it didn’t rain and there was this strange yellow orb hanging in the sky. No doubt it was just an aberration and normal services will return soon – rain and storms are forecast for later in the week again. Very depressing, but I mustn’t grumble as at least we aren’t living in any of the many flooded areas of Scotland and northern England. You can read about storm Desmond here. We had intended going down to Dumfries and Carlisle for a few days before Christmas too, thank goodness I suffer from terminal procrastination otherwise we would probably have been caught up in it all. At least I’ve been getting plenty of reading done.

In the Guardian Review section this week there’s an article you might be interested in if you are into Jane Austen. Is anyone not a fan? – I ask myself. You can read How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the shape of fiction by John Mullan here.

Meanwhile, back at the library I’ve been borrowing these:

Borrowed Library Books

the distance between us by Maggie O’Farrell
A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
The Lonely Skier by Hammond Innes
Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid
Whay Matters in Jane Austen? by John Mullan

I’ve finished Go Set a Watchman which I swithered about reading but I really enjoyed and have plenty to say about it, soon I hope.

I’m annoyed about the Louise Penny book because it’s one which I somehow missed when I was working my way through the Three Pines series, so it’ll be all out of whack!

Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

I’ve been swithering about reading Go Set a Watchman but at last I’ve definitely decided not to read it as I don’t want to sully my experience of reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

If you haven’t already done so you can read the first chapter of Go Set a Watchman here. It’s accompanied by items by Oprah Winfrey, Shami Chakrabarti, Mary Badham (Scout in the film) and Harper Lee’s sister, Alice.

As it happens, Jack had never got around to reading To Kill a Mockingbird, it seems it wasn’t a set book when he was at school, although I must admit that I read it years before it was given to me at school to read.

You can read Jack’s review here.

To Kill a Mockingbird at 50

I enjoyed watching the BBC documentary To Kill a Mockingbird at 50. I watched it last night and it will be available to watch on the iplayer for another 12 days. The film is 60 minutes long.

Andrew Smith had been hoping to get an interview with Nelle Harper Lee but of course she didn’t oblige him, although her presence did seem to be felt by him as he travelled around Monroeville. She did allow her sister Alice to speak to him and friends and neighbours contributed to the film too.

I found it interesting anyway and hope you like it too.

To Kill a Mockingbird and stuff.

Judith at Reader in the Wilderness has been blogging about To Kill a Mockingbird recently, and then, as often happens, she discovered that this is a special year for it, the 50th anniversary of its publication. As it is one of my favourite books I thought I would write a wee bit about it.

I first read the book in the summer of 1971, I had just turned 12 and I was in Germany, Bavaria actually, visiting my pen-pal Jutta for the first time. Her English was not great and my German was nearly non-existent then and I was there on my own so it was quite a difficult, lonely visit.

Thankfully, an American had visited the village the year before and had left their copy of To Kill a Mockingbird behind, so I was given it to read. I absolutely loved it although it was so unfair and I hated what happened to Tom, but it is the only book which I have ever got to the end of and started reading again almost immediately.

It’s not only against racism, but about intolerance of anyone who is different. So when Scout begins to mock Walter a dinner guest, the housekeeper Calpurnia gives her a row for it. If people want syrup on their meat and vegetables, it doesn’t make them any less of a person. My mum would have skelped me into the next week if I had behaved like Scout. Boo, the neighbourhood ‘bogey man’ turns out to be the life saver and a good soul, a victim of a tormented childhood. As was Mayella, life wasn’t all wine and roses just because you were white.

The book is a lesson on how to behave towards people who are different from yourself. Treat everyone as you yourself would wish to be treated.

Some years later I saw the film starring Gregory Peck. The whole thing was so well cast, even the kids were great. Then it was a set book in high school, so it was a shock to me to find out that it isn’t taught in Alabama, apparently the excuse is that as it is the only book which Harper Lee wrote, there is no body of work to study. In my opinion To Kill a Mockingbird has more than enough in it to be getting on with.

Growing up in a small town in the west of Scotland in the 60s meant that I personally had no experience of racism, everybody in the town was white. The big problem there is religion with the Roman Catholic church insisting that they be given money to run their own schools instead of using the normal state schools like everybody else, meaning that there is religious segregation, which is not a good thing.

However, during World War 2 my dad was in the Merchant Navy and he had spent 6 months in New York when the ship he was on needed to have work done on it. It must have been between 1939 and 42, before America was in the war and dad had a very enjoyable time there, especially in Harlem because there were lots of street musicians and dancers, which he loved.

So when he was in a diner with one of his shipmates, they were surprised to be asked to leave. The problem was that they had chosen to eat in a diner which was for black people only. They hadn’t noticed that everybody else was black and apparently some of the regulars were upset by their inadvertent intrusion.

When dad told me that story I was just a wee girl and I thought how terrible it must have been for my really mild-mannered dad to be chucked out of somewhere, but they completely understood and after all it was nothing to the way black people were being treated routinely.

Racism caught up with me though when we moved to England in the late 70s and as a Scot I was not exactly welcomed with open arms. My husband worked for a Malaysian company and was treated as very much a second class citizen compared with the Malaysian workers.

On the other hand, as a Scot, when you go abroad you are in danger of being hugged in the street by complete strangers if they realise that you are Scottish. It happens in France, Norway and Holland, something to do with Scottish soldiers at the end of WW2 I believe. It’s a bit of a shock the first time it happens to you.

So racism and bigotry come in all shapes and sizes and there are laws now to help fight against such evils. In Britain it is common to be tormented by idiots if you happen to be a redhead and there is no law against that. So you go through school being picked on and judged because of the colour of your hair and there are even advertising campaigns in which the so called ‘ginger’ person is ridiculed.

Although I was never a Michael Jackson fan, I did agree completely with him when he said: “I’m not going to spend my life being a colour.” Yes, I’ve got red hair or as my mum called it, strawberry blonde.

What a long meander – back to the book – Judith is going to be buying herself a special edition of it which has been published to celebrate the anniversary.

A few years ago I treated myself to the Folio Books edition, their books are always beautiful and come with nice slip covers too.

If there is anyone who hasn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird – do yourself a favour and read it or even just watch the film.

Sorry, I know I was supposed to be writing just a wee bit but I got sort of taken over somehow.

Flashback Challenge

I’ve been reading about all these book challenges that are going on and thought that it was about time that I signed up for one myself. The Flashback Challenge seems like a great excuse to re-read ‘old friends’ and I’m really enthusiastic about it, so I’m planning to read 12 books again, one for each month of the year – and here they are.

Flashback Challenge books

As I’ve never participated in a book challenge before, I’m just presuming that the idea is you write a review in your blog. Anyway, that’s what I’ll be doing with these books, although not particularly in this order.

1. The Enchanted April – by Elizabeth von Arnim.
2. Lark Rise – Flora Thompson.
3. And Quiet Flows the Don- Mikhail Sholokhov.
4. The Fortunes of War – Olivia Manning.
5. Strong Poison – Dorothy L. Sayers.
6. The Railway Children – E. Nesbit.
7. The Golden Age – Gore Vidal
8. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee.
9. Scenes of Clerical Life – George Eliot
10. Peter Pan – J.M. Barrie.
11. Kidnapped – R.L. Stevenson.
12. Rebecca – Daphne du Maurier.

I’m looking forward to it.