Reading for Me

The Books I Have Read…..Just for Me

#20: Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee)

Anyone who has ever asked me to name my favorite book has gotten the same answer since the summer before leaving for Pepperdine. That’s when I fell in love with To Kill a Mockingbird. I always lamented the fact that Harper Lee had only written one book. My passion for the classic novel was passed on to Jacquelyn when we shared the book many years later. Imagine our excitement when the announcement was made that a new novel by Harper Lee would be released. Go Set a Watchman was an immediate choice for the Reading with Jacqs project.

I had mixed emotions while reading Go Set a Watchman. Perhaps I was being influenced by the plethora of reviews that have appeared in the media. Perhaps I was saddened to witness beloved characters grappling with issues of racism and prejudice that didn’t conform to my expectations based on my initial encounter with them in To Kill a Mockingbird. By the time I finished Watchman, my views had changed — and for that, I am very thankful. Many have proclaimed that the aged Atticus Finch is a racist. I am not so certain about that. Instead, I see a man who is struggling to deal with changes occurring around him as he tries to balance his personal beliefs with the supposed reality he currently sees. He is a man torn.

Jean Louise is a woman of deep conviction. She is certain of her beliefs and feels things deeply. Her passion is at times explosive. Her personal struggle is one that pits the acceptance of Northern society against the traditions and heritage of her Southern roots. Scout is a woman desperately trying to hold on to her innocent memories of childhood while coming to terms with the imperfections of those she has idolized since her earliest days.

Go Set a Watchman is not Harper Lee’s best writing; that title will forever be reserved for Mockingbird. While the current novel lacks her earlier polish, powerful passages still find their way into the text and root deep into our souls. I intentionally did not mark passages in my first reading of Watchman; I wanted to allow Lee’s story to consume me without analyzing the material. However, a few sentences struck me with their beauty and power. Here is one of my favorites:

“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” (Go Set a Watchman, p. 270)

Go Set a Watchman is not without fault. It needed an editor’s hand to polish it to its full potential. Despite its problems, this novel is truly a diamond in the rough that will be treasured for years to come.

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#18: Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy)

I just finished the June selection of the Reading with Jacqs project and thoroughly enjoyed this 1895 classic. I have picked up novels by Thomas Hardy several times to read, but never finished one. Ironically, it seems that all of those failed attempts were associated with the packing involved with a major move. Now that I have finished Jude the Obscure, I am certain that I will be coming back for more of Hardy’s eloquent prose.

Jude Fawley is the orphaned son of a poor English family. Since there is no money for a formal education, Jude educates himself through intense reading of classic and religious texts. He plans to attend college in Christminster (Hardy’s version of Oxford). Plans change when the young Jude is enticed by the beautiful Arabella. The two are quickly married, but the union is filled with turmoil. Arabella ultimately leaves Jude to live with her parents in Australia. Abandoned and alone, Jude follows his dreams and moves to Christminster where he encounters his cousin, Sue, who is fascinated by the pagan treasures of antiquity and a future profession as a teacher. Jude and Sue develop feelings for each other, but Sue chooses to marry another in order to finance her education. Jude’s life is forever intertwined with his feelings for these two women and his beliefs related to faith, morality, and the value of education. Hardy’s novel treats the reader to an experience filled with tragedy, passion, and regret that will not soon be forgotten.

Jude the Obscure can be enjoyed merely for the story it tells. However, a careful reading reveals Hardy’s commentary on the role of education — both formal and experiential — in the life of the individual while exploring the changing face of religious belief in English society. Filled with Christian and pagan imagery, Jude the Obscure presents contrasting views of morality in a succinct manner that allows the audience to carefully compare and consider the opposing lines of thought. In his exploration of marriage, Hardy is just as thorough. The author considers the union as a religious sacrament as well as a business arrangement. The influence of public opinion in the private affairs of a man and woman are at the center of the novel and questions about the nature of love, forgiveness, and parenthood are raised throughout. Jude the Obscure is not a novel that a reader will consume quickly; however, it is a treasure that will hold a revered place on my bookshelf for many years to come.

The August selection for the Reading with Jacqs project is Harper Lee’s much anticipated Go Set a Watchman. I have a few more books from My Library Shelf project sitting on my nightstand to fill the rest of the month. I anticipate reading the new story of Atticus Finch as my first book in my Texas residence. (Just didn’t want you to think that I had lost my mind and was ignoring this exciting new work that was just released this week!)

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#13: White Teeth (Zadie Smith)

National bestseller White Teeth was the first novel by author Zadie Smith. First published in 2000, the book is a mixture of humor, wit, and in-depth examination of the human condition. I thoroughly enjoyed the book and plan to re-read it again in the future.

White Teeth opens with a gripping scene in which Samad is attempting to commit suicide when his plans are foiled by a well-meaning shop keeper. Samad is a practicing Hindu who lives in England along with his best friend, Archie. The two had served together in World War II (although they had seen little fighting). Their common experiences linked them for life. Now living in London, Samad finds himself struggling to pass on the traditions of his Indian heritage to his children. The father fears that his sons have been negatively influenced by the Western way of life and have become too English. In order to halt the effect of modern society on his children in his personal struggle against modern progress, Samad makes a decision that will forever impact the lives of his entire family. The novel traces the effects of that single decision upon the family and all they encounter.

White Teeth beautifully explores the inevitability of change in modern society. Advancements are made in science while fanatical religious groups seek to halt the progress. Younger generations find fault with the ideologies of their parents. The old desperately struggle to maintain the familiarity and tradition of the past. In each of these struggles, everyone thinks their ideals are correct and should not be opposed. Conflict arises, events are set in motion that cannot be halted, and the generational and ideological chasms deepen. Smith forces the 21st century reader to face his own biases and consider the impact they are having on their family and society as a whole. White Teeth is a tremendous read that I think will quickly become a modern classic.

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#10: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Ken Kesey)

My feelings about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest changed throughout my time reading the May selection for my reading project with Jacqs. From the beginning, I found myself confused by the voice of the narrator and unable to identify with the characters Kesey had created. Once I neared the end of part one, however, things changed. I suddenly realized that this novel was not simply about patients in a mental hospital. Instead, Kesey explored those individuals who exercise domination and manipulation in order to gain control over others. The patients became all of us who have been subjected to emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of those in authority — in the work place, in the classroom, in the church. In this light, themes of man’s need to gain personal freedom from oppression and the power of laughter and self-confidence rose to the front of my reading. Suddenly, I found myself standing shoulder to shoulder with Big Chief and McMurphy as they struggled against the vile Nurse Ratched. I quickly identified some Nurse Ratched’s in my own life and I understood that freedom comes in many forms — sometimes tragic — but always resulting in the desired freedom.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a story that speaks to the value of humanity and the plight of the mentally ill and oppressed in our society. Was it my favorite book ever? Not by any means. However, it spoke to me and I will forever be grateful for my time spent in the Ward with these gentle, charming patients.

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#6: Carthage (Joyce Carol Oates)

Let me yell it from the rooftop: I LOVED THIS BOOK!!! Carthage was the March selection of the Reading with Jacqs project that told the story of the Mayfield family. Living in a small New England town, the Mayfields have two daughters: Juliet (the pretty one) and Cressida (the homely smart one). Juliet is to marry Corporeal Brett Kinkaid, a local football star and war hero. Tragically, Kinkaid returns from Iraq with great physical and emotional trauma. Shortly after calling off the wedding, Kinkaid and Cressida are seen together at a local bar. When Cressida doesn’t return, the small town assumes the worst and Kinkaid is the prime suspect.

Carthage explores the issues of loss, grief and anger while also considering the plight of the outcast and victimized. Things are not always as they appear, and one moment’s justified anger may become repentance when truth is brought to light. One of my favorite passages of the novel comes from part two:

She’d fled. Like a kicked and terrified dog she’d fled. Like a dog she’d wished only to hide, and lick her wounds. Her shame that was a kind of wound. It did not occur to her, it had not once occurred to her, that others might have been injured as well. “But they didn’t love me. Did they?” (Oates, 330)

Oates so clearly conveys the confusion of the character as she comes to terms with her actions. Although the novel is markedly dark in tone, its text is thought-provoking and firmly places Oates among the important authors of our day. Carthage is definitely a worthwhile read.

What’s next on the list for Jacqs and me? We’re heading back to the classics and reading Great Expectations together in April.

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#4: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Mark Haddon)

The February selection for the “Reading with Jacqs” project was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. The book is basically a mystery narrated by a young English boy, Christopher, who is a highly functioning autistic. The mystery begins with the death of a dog, Wellington, that our narrator finds with a lawn fork stuck in him. His search for the cause of the dog’s death leads to the instruction by his aggressive father to “stop sticking your nose in other people’s business.” Christopher decides to write a book detailing his search for answers. When his father trashes the manuscript as a punishment for Christopher’s persistent search for the dog’s murderer, the search for his prized notebook leads to an unexpected discovery that shapes the course of the rest of Christopher’s adventures.

Mark Haddon eloquently expresses the quirkiness of an autistic boy and takes the reader deep into the inner-workings of the mind. Every detail of the book — including the numbering system used for the book’s chapters — are designed to paint a clearer portrait of our main character. At times difficult to process because of the tangents Haddon’s writing includes, it quickly becomes clear that we are seeing the world through the eyes of the disorder. What I found most intriguing is that the novel is not about the disorder; autism is simply a fact of Christopher’s life that partially defines him. Although I don’t normally read mysteries, I found myself immersed in the tale of Christopher, his family relationships, and the curious incident that links them all together.

What’s next on my reading list? I’ve just begun Trevanian’s The Crazyladies of Pearl Street. I’m hoping to make a nice dent in it during tomorrow’s snow day from school.

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#2: Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

It took me 28 days, but I am happy to say that I finally made it through to the end of Crime and Punishment, the first selection in this year’s “Reading with Jacqs” project.

A bit of background before diving into my feelings about the book. Jacqs is my oldest niece who is a fellow book lover. While visiting on Christmas Day, we abruptly decided to read a book a month together. We’ll alternate who selects the book each month and at least six of the total selections will be classics. Somehow, I got chosen to make the first choice. Since both of us had adored reading The Brothers Karamazov and had a little extra time in the month of January, I decided on Crime and Punishment. What was I thinking?

Crime and Punishment is a tale of evil actions and their impact on the criminal as well as those surrounding him. Raskolnikov is struggling to feed himself in 19th century Russia. As a result of his hunger (or so he claims), Raskolnikov gruesomely murders an old pawn broker with an axe. When her young sister unexpectedly arrives on the scene, Raskolnikov kills her as well. The criminal searches the apartment and finds treasures that he ultimately hides beneath a boulder, taking none of it for his immediate gain. Much of the rest of the novel examines Raskolnikov’s apparent madness as his guilt eats away at him. His family members are kept at arm’s length. His friends are confused by his behavior. Raskolnikov convinces himself that he didn’t commit a crime since the old woman really didn’t deserve to live.

Hidden within the story are multiple references to death and resurrection. Crosses are found at the scene of the crime and reappear throughout the novel. The story of Lazarus’ death and resurrection features prominently into the novel’s moving center section. Raskolnikov is found ill in the hospital in the epilogue during Lent and Holy Week. His ultimate healing — a resurrection, of sorts — comes when the woman who loves him, Sonya, sacrifices herself by agreeing to wait for his release from prison in seven years. In many ways, Sonya becomes the Christ-figure in Crime and Punishment.

While I enjoyed the philosophical discussions and many religious references, I found the novel to be plodding and difficult to read. As Jacqs and I chatted online, she commented that she clearly understood how the book would have been successful as a serial. The reader needs to take breaks frequently to process the implications and recover from the extreme volume. The passage that I enjoyed the most while reading Crime and Punishment came at the end of the epilogue:  “But here begins a new account, the account of a man’s gradual renewal, the account of his gradual regeneration, his gradual transition from one world to another, his acquaintance with a new, hitherto completely unknown reality. It might make the subject of a new story — but our present story is ended.” Boy, was I glad to finish that one!

February’s selection was made by Jacqs — The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon — and arrived in the mail today. I’ve got a few days before I get to start that one, but I’m certainly hoping for a better experience than my time with Crime and Punishment. If you’d like to join in the conversation of February’s book, grab a copy and get to reading. You’ll be more than welcome!

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