Book Review: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

This book impressed me with the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of its social message, but I think I would have enjoyed the story more if I hadn’t read it in school.

4/5 stars

cover to kill a mockingbird

Amazon Description

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior – to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

My Review

Unlike everyone else who has recently read this book (or so it seems), I didn’t pick up To Kill A Mockingbird because of the announcement of Go Set a Watchman. I read it for school–10th grade Honors English–and it is easily my favorite book we’ve read this year.

It’s hard to talk about a book that is so popular, so influential, and so timeless. It feels strange to break it down as I do other books into plot, characters, themes, and writing style. But I’m not sure how else to talk about it, so here goes.

I loved Scout. I connected to her on many levels–she is an endearing child, her innocence and optimism make the book what it is today, and her simple rejection of Southern femininity speaks across decades to my feminist side. Rarely do I pick up books with young protagonists, mainly because I feel I’ve outgrown middle grade, and it was a pleasure to read a book whose themes were adult and whose plot pulled no punches, narrated by an elementary-school age child who made the whole book bearable. I feel like authors today don’t break the rules governing the relationship between the age of a protagonist and the content of the plot as often, and I wish they did. It is wonderful to read about young, innocent, energetic protagonists who get in fistfights and make up “haunted” houses.

And then there’s Atticus. He is amazing. Many people in my class had trouble with his somewhat distant relationship with his children, but I understood and loved it from the beginning. He couldn’t have been the lawyer or righteous character that he was if he was a super hands-on father, but that isn’t to say that he was a bad father. He was actually the best father that Jem and Scout could hope for–teaching them lessons so subtely that they followed them instead of rebelling against them. This, incidentally, also made sure that the reader didn’t want to strangle Atticus for being “preachy,” something I was afraid would happen if Harper Lee had not been such a gifted storyteller. Atticus’s relationship with guns was one of the most powerful parts of the book for me (and not just because it is where the title came from). The scene where he shoots the dog was one of the most dramatic and thought-provoking scenes in the book, and I know that in “X” amount of years it will be one of the moments that stays with me.

The rest of the characters in Maycomb were simple but alive. Though there are tons of side characters, each one of them is memorable and well characterized. Miss Maudie was one of my favorites; I loved the solidarity we got to see with Atticus and her sweet relationship with the children. Miss Stephanie Crawford and Aunt Alexandra drove me crazy, but in a good way–the story would not have been believable without their deeply Southern input. Jem and Dill, honestly, were some of my least favorite characters. I liked them, and they obviously contributed to the story, but their treatment of Scout bothered me, and I just never connected to them the way I did other characters. Calpurnia, on the other hand, was one of my favorites.

On to the plot of this book. It is a complex plot, not the kind of thing that can be described with any other term than “growing up.” The beginning’s focus on Boo Radely did a good job establishing a basis for Maycomb and Scout, though I preferred the scenes that focused more on Scout’s personal life than the Boo Radely “myth.”

Of course, the trial was the most powerful portion of the plot in terms of social commentary. I admire that Harper Lee didn’t shy away from making it a rape case, and that she was willing to make the truth of the case as “scandalous” as it would have been during the 30’s (when it is set) and also the 60’s (when it was published). Tom Robinson’s plight got to me, as well as the horrible position Mayella was in. The hatred I feel for Bob Ewell surprised even myself–I am extremely emotionally invested in this book. Atticus came into the spotlight and validated the hero-worship that comes his way. And Scout was simultaneously forced to grow up and strengthened by her youthful innocence.

The repercussions of the trial were important, but it was clear to me that the book was winding down. The attack scene, which I guess functions as a climax, felt like it was in the falling action portion of the plot, and ended up being lost a bit for me. Still, I loved that Harper Lee brought Boo Radley back, just to validate the beginning of the book and to show Scout’s growth. I was genuinely proud of Scout in the last pages of the book.

I think I would have enjoyed the book more if I hadn’t read it in school. Not because of annotating it or of beating it to death with class discussions, but because of how slow we read it. The plot felt very disjointed as we read it, chapter by chapter, with shot breaks between sections of the plot. I’d like to reread it at some point, on my own time, to really absorb the story as a whole. I think the plot would seem more continuous, and I would enjoy the impact of the story more fully.

Book Review: Books I Read for English Class, part 2

When I started this blog in April I did a mass review of all the books I’d read in my freshman English class up until then. The school year is almost over, so I decided I should review the last two books I read: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Ayn Rand’s Anthem.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury:

I still can’t decide what I thought of this book. I enjoyed reading it, as much as I ever do when I have to annotate a book, but the more I thought about it after I read it, the more problems I had with it.

The plot, which feels exciting while you’re reading it, has a very simple progression. The main character’s, Montag’s, character arc is predictable in a frustratingly point-A-to-point-B way. The side characters–Clarisse, Faber, and the book men–though interesting in the moment, have no character arc at all, only appearing to influence Montag, then disappearing, to be replaced. It’s well-written, but a little heavy on metaphors for my personal taste (thought that might just be the overwhelmed and sleep-deprived student talking, trying to annotate at 11:00 pm talking).

Most of my problems with the novel come down to it’s length. It is about 50,000 words, about half the length of today’s YA novels (80,000-100,000 words). Which means it is short, something I loved as a student, but which eventually drove me to dislike the book.

Fahrenheit 451 is clearly a plot based book, focused on sending a message about the dangers of technology/over-stimulation/basically the world we live in. And on that note, it succeeds. However, I prefer character-driven books. I want to fall in love with not just the protagonist, but every person he meets. I want to be amazed by how they change, surprised by their actions, blown away when I compare them on the first page with them on the last page. Ray Bradbury’s novel was missing this for me. It simply wasn’t long enough for Montag to have a complicated arc, or for the backup characters to be anything more than cardboard cutouts of messages, like bad movie props. I understand why the book is so popular, but I wanted more from it, especially because it was the one book I actually wanted to read going into the school year.

 

Anthem by Ayn Rand:

Literally every person I’ve told we read this book says something along the line of, “They’re making you read Ayn Rand?!”

Yep.

I didn’t like this book, though I’m not sure if it is for the classic, anti-Ayn-Rand reasons of most people who hated it.

As in the case of Fahrenheit 451, this book was heavily message based and way too short for characters or plot to develop.

I don’t think anyone can argue Anthem was written for a plot or character development reason. It was written to spread an anti-collectivist message during the rise of communism in Eastern Europe. Ayn Rand even explains that the title of the book is drawn from her feeling that it was an anthem to the Objectivism movement. I can respect that she looked to a literary device to spread opinions she clearly held strongly.

But couldn’t she have done it better? Instead of the heavy-handed slapping me in the face with your message, couldn’t she have subtly woven the message into the plot and the characters. It didn’t even have to be that subtle. It just would have helped if there was any plot.

Nothing about the novel makes sense. The modern world has collapsed and a totalitarian, collectivist government has taken over. There is no technology past candles and glass, and people are back to thinking that the world is flat. No one explores the Uncharted Forest. It is a society completely stripped of humanity.

Sure, that’s the point. But if you examine the book closely (again with the annotating), you break through a sort of backwards 4th wall, and you can see Ayn Rand trying to send messages be separate from the logic of her world.

For example, the character names: Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000. As we discussed in class, this is a gorgeous allusion to American values and the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”). But why would a totalitarian government hell-bent on destroying the past weave these allusions in. Equality’s name makes sense, but Liberty? The society is not based on freedom, but full obedience to the Councils. This is Ayn Rand talking, not caring about her plot, only the message.

Then some things just aren’t logical. There’s the prison that doesn’t have working locks on the doors or guards because no one would dare to escape. But presumably if people disobeyed to get into jail, they’d to it again to get out. The society reinvented candles and managed to call them by the exact same name. Equality stumbles upon electricity (again with the NO TECHNOLOGY ANYWHERE) and invents the light bulb in a few weeks. Only Scholars are allowed to read but everyone can. Wouldn’t a totalitarian government destroying independent thought keep people from reading in the most basic way possible? (However, this skill is useful when Equality finds books and learns of the past…so we can understand why Ayn Rand couldn’t keep her populace illiterate.)

And for a novel written solely for spreading messages throughout the world, it is stupidly misogynistic. (*Spoilers, though predictable*) Liberty falls in love with Equality, and there’s a quote that goes something like “And her eyes which defied the world looked at me as if they would do anything I asked” (sorry for the paraphrase, but you get the gist). Liberty, who starts out as a refreshingly rebellious female figure, turns complacent and practically worships Equality. Ayn Rand’s message that individual thought is the most important value apparently only applies to cocky, power-hungry males who consider themselves gods.

I’m fine with authors using their books to say things about the world. (Read Laini Taylor’s Smoke and Bone series and Libba Bray’s Beauty Queens.) But I won’t respect your message if the book doesn’t make sense and if it’s clear you thought you could get away with a half-assed plot because your themes are just so important.

Book Review: English Class

You’ve probably noticed that I don’t read many “classics.” I’d like to say that this isn’t true…I could probably come up with some excuse that makes me seem like more than a teenager who can’t be troubled to read something from before 2000. But the truth is this: I like reading YA. I like reading about confident young women (and men) going on adventures and falling in love. Older works often frustrate me when the female characters are portrayed as weak and male-dominated. I’m not saying this is every classic out there, but there are definitely some common denominators. And I also know that this isn’t really anyone’s fault–it was simply the mindset of the period. But JK Rowling came along and opened the door for a new type of story, one where teens can go on adventures and be strong and have characters. And I figure reading is done in my spare time, so I might as well read what I want to read. So there.

But I’m also a freshman in high school which means–ENGLISH CLASS. I actually enjoy this class, and will probably have some posts coming out about it soon. But for now I thought it would be interesting to review the books I’ve read this year: The Pearl by John Steinbeck, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, and Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare.

1) The Pearl by John Steinbeck

I’ll be honest. I hated it. I’ve never liked stories set on islands following fishermen, et cetera. Too much imagery, not enough plot. It probably didn’t help that I had to painstakingly annotate (the hell out of) it. Glad it’s over. Sorry to Steinbeck fans.

2) The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

The next to sentences are only going to reinforce the feeling that I’m a cliche teen who hates classics: 1) This book isn’t really a classic, it was written recently. 2) And I really liked it. Whatever. It is a series of vignettes about a young girl growing up in a low income area. Good voice. Emotional. Easy to annotate, which helped.

3) The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

I’m not even going to apologize for not liking this one. A guy turns into a bug for sixty pages. And basically does nothing besides delude himself into thinking he’s not a bug and scaring the hell out of his family. Not my cup of tea.

4) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I liked this one. The romance was okay. Rochester swayed between being horrifyingly annoying and devastatingly attractive. Jane was at once both annoyingly docile and uniquely strong. Good plot. Interesting characters.

5) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

My first Shakespeare! It was an enjoyable read. Soooo well written. Plot needed time to develop. Would have been better as a novel but that’s just me. It was a cute story with a tragic, yet well known end. Gloriously easy to annotate. Overall, fun.

 

So there. I’ve read classics.