And now for my back-to-school edition of What I’m Reading! I mention the “school” part because there’s some heavyweights in here today… No more mindless summer fiction – time for a mental workout!
Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee, attracted criticism (it’s simply a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird!) and confusion (wait – Atticus Finch is a racist?!), but – I actually loved it. That doesn’t mean it was easy for me to read, because it wasn’t. The first half of the book seems to consist of random, semi-related vignettes – all well-written with admirable characterization, but it was unclear how the scenes connected. By the last quarter of the novel, however, I understood Lee’s direction and couldn’t wait to keep reading. As for the shocking revelation (well-documented in the media at the time of the book’s release) that Atticus possessed racist tendencies, I have two dominant takeaways. First, if this is, indeed, a rough draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, in this story Scout – Jean Louise – is the “colorblind” heroine, and I wonder if a 20-something female, returning to the small-town American South from her experiences in the big, liberal city, wasn’t compelling enough for an editor in 1950’s America, when this book was written. It was much more believable and bankable to cast a man in the role of civil rights hero, and that’s what happened in Mockingbird, believed to be the superior rendition of this story. But, even bigger for me, is how much does it say about 1950’s America that even a man as upstanding, as admirable, as solid and as seemingly infallible as Atticus Finch was still of the mindset that African-Americans were inferior? As a cultural touchstone of American attitudes toward race in our country, Go Set a Watchman is amazing, as it is true to its time period and, even more so than Mockingbird (for me), forces reflection about how far the United States has come and how far we need to go when it comes to race relations.
Two nights ago, I finished James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. I’m not sure I understood this book fully, though the writing is breathtakingly beautiful. This is the racy, excruciatingly intimate story (no, seriously, it’s practically porn) of a young couple, Phillip and Anna-Marie, hooking up in 1960’s France. The author chooses an unusual point of view, making his narrator Phillip’s roommate, not Phillip himself, even though the book contains graphic details about Phillip and Anna-Marie’s lovemaking on nearly every page. The narrator provides these play-by-play accounts, all while confessing he couldn’t really be sure about the details and he might be making them all up. He lusts after another woman in the book, Claude, whom we barely meet – in fact, the narrator never actually speaks to her in the book, and she’s mentioned just a handful of times. The relationship is never requited or concluded in the book – perhaps obsessing over Phillip’s sexual conquest of Anna-Marie allows the narrator to fulfill his own romantic fantasies and his incapability to dominate women as his roommate Phillip does. Salter’s style is mesmerizing and exact, and I admire him for it. But I’d really think twice about recommending this book to most people I know – and if I did recommend it to a select few English-teacher-type friends, it would be because I wanted some assistance hashing the whole thing out.
I’ve wanted to read Redeployment, by Phil Klay, for months, but as it is a collection of short stories about being on the front lines in Iraq, I’ve had to gear up to start this book. I’m prepared to be uncomfortable. This will be the first time I read Joan Didion’s masterpiece essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem in its entirety. I’ve taught many of her works, but digging into her writing feels right to me at this point in my life.
What are you reading? What should I add to my list?