You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘book review’ tag.

A Friend of Mr. Lincolnhttp://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160129-fiction-a-friend-of-mr.-lincoln-by-stephen-harrigan.ece

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans.

By Joyce Sáenz Harris
Special Contributor

Of all American presidents, Abraham Lincoln is the one most often accorded something like reverence. Most of us were taught a grade-school version of his life that sketches his triumph over crushing backwoods poverty, his moral conversion to abolitionist beliefs, and his rise to become Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, savior of the Union and martyr to the cause of freedom.

But in Stephen Harrigan’s splendid new novel, A Friend of Mr. Lincoln, we meet a very different Honest Abe. This young Mr. Lincoln is a politically ambitious but socially awkward frontier lawyer of the 1830s and ’40s, one who often falls victim to “the hypo,” meaning depression and anxiety. He is driven by his concept of honor as if by Furies, yet he also relishes using his mercilessly sharp tongue to win at the law or the ballot box. He hates slavery but doesn’t really believe in racial equality. He tells terrible, ribald jokes. He is a fatalist, wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln is written from the third-person viewpoint of Micajah “Cage” Weatherby, who meets the future president as a roughhewn youth during the Indian wars and later becomes one of Lincoln’s bachelor cronies in Springfield, Ill. (Given that Harrigan wrote the superb historical novel The Gates of the Alamo, it may be no coincidence that “Micajah” also was the first name of an Alamo defender.) Cage Weatherby is a fictitious character, but Harrigan inserts him neatly and believably into Lincoln’s social circle of real-life Springfield friends such as Joshua Speed and Billy Herndon.

Lincoln takes an immediate liking to Cage, in awe that he is a published poet who has traveled to Europe. Cage, meanwhile, knows there is something special about his new friend, no matter that Lincoln is shabbily dressed, reedy-voiced and awkward as a young stork. Ambition burns inside this man, Cage realizes, and he senses that Lincoln is destined for some sort of greatness: “Lincoln was a man people tended to develop a deepening fascination with.” Yet for all the camaraderie they share, Harrigan’s Lincoln remains a riddle even to his best friends.

“The interesting thing about Lincoln,” Joshua Speed remarks to Cage, “is that he’s both the most public man and the most private man I’ve ever known. He has to hover rather precisely between the poles of his personality. Any deviation might pull him apart.”

The turning point in the men’s friendship comes when Kentucky belle Mary Todd arrives in Springfield in 1838. Lincoln is bowled over by the fact that “she knows Henry Clay! She lived only a few miles from him in Lexington and used to visit him as a girl. … It’s like living down the road from George Washington!”

Cage can’t imagine that the refined Todds would ever consider the rustic Lincoln as a possible suitor: “The union of Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd was as unlikely in theory that night as it would later prove to be in reality.” But Mary is one of those people with a deepening fascination with Lincoln, and like Cage, she senses his potential for greatness.

Lincoln, in turn, knows he needs a political helpmate, and Mary is perfect on paper: a skilled hostess with charm, useful connections and an astute, calculating mind. Nevertheless, Lincoln is reluctant to commit, and the courtship is a long, rocky one. Cage’s efforts to support his friend end up backfiring, and he learns firsthand just how vindictive Mary Todd Lincoln can be.

Harrigan’s previous novels all have been set in Texas, so A Friend of Mr. Lincoln marks a departure for the Austin-based writer. Just like his other books, this one quickly engages the reader’s imagination with its deep perspective, rich historical authenticity and a lively cast of striving, imperfect humans. His Lincoln is one of them: a young man subject to the same torments, infatuations, ambitions, enthusiasms and sexual appetites as other young men. But unlike the others, he is peculiarly fated to become a tragic, heroic figure whose best speeches are the immortal poetry he yearned to write.

After a century and a half, he also remains America’s most beloved enigma. That homely face and those weary gray eyes guard a well of secrets so unfathomable that we, even as friends of Mr. Lincoln, have yet to plumb its depths.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

Plan your life

Stephen Harrigan will speak Thursday, Feb. 4 at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, Dallas. The 7 p.m. talk is free; a 6 p.m. reception, which includes a signed book, is $30. Register at hpumc.org/ or 214-523-2240.

A Friend of Mr. Lincoln

Stephen Harrigan

(Knopf, $27.95)

Available Tuesday, Feb. 2.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20160102-memoir-dear-mr.-you-by-mary-louise-parker.ece

MARY-LOUISE PARKER - Bebeto Matthews - AP

I have seen Mary-Louise Parker act in three very different Broadway plays: Craig Lucas’ Prelude to a Kiss (1990), Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors (1998) and David Auburn’s Proof (2000), for which Parker won a Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play.

Witnessing those performances probably influenced my perception of Parker as a fiercely private person, a reluctant celebrity who is as elusive as a shapeshifter. She admits that she is strongly opinionated, and some who have worked with her might not call her particularly collegial. But her acting talent is undeniable — and so, it would appear, is her talent as a writer.

DEAR MR. YOU

Dear Mr. You is billed as a memoir, but it is different from virtually any other memoir I have read. Most are fairly straight-ahead narratives, moving from Point A to Point B and onward in chronological order, including or excluding juicy details as the teller prefers. Generally speaking, you will get names, dates, places and specific happenings in various degrees of candor.

Parker, 51, does not do any of this. Instead, Dear Mr. You is written as a series of letters or thank-you notes addressed to the various men who have influenced her life. She starts with Grandpa and Daddy and includes lovers, friends, acquaintances and strangers, but not her brothers.

Almost no names are given. Dates and places aren’t often specified. There’s a fair amount of mystery here, at least if you thought you were really going to get the skinny on Parker’s past. But this memoirist isn’t giving up the goods that easily.

“People are consistently curious about other people’s business,” Parker recently toldThe Washington Post. “They always have been. They probably always will be. … No one’s entitled to anyone’s information about anyone else.”

Nevertheless, Parker reveals a fair amount of herself, or at least of the self she wants us to see, and it feels real enough that one can believe she sincerely means it. Each chapter in Dear Mr. You is a prose poem of sorts, filled with emotional memories — though Parker says in her prologue that she loathes the word memories “for both its icky tone and wistful graveyard implications.”

She fondly recalls men who “can fix my screen door, my attitude, and open most jars … slam a puck, build a decent cabinet or the perfect sandwich.” This book, it seems, is her chance to say “thank you for the tour of the elevator cage, the sound booth, the alley; thank you for the kaleidoscope, the get-well tequila, the painting, the truth.”

Among them was “Man Out of Time,” an elegant guy she met at a party, with whom she struck up a necessarily short but lovely friendship because “I just liked you so much.” It’s an elegiac story that rings true for all of us who have lost special friends much too soon.

Then there was “Mr. Cabdriver,” whose egregiously wrong turns on a bad day threw a hugely pregnant Parker into an f-bomb-fueled panic (in her defense, she had just been dumped by her longtime beau, actor Billy Crudup) and prompted the cabdriver to make an abrupt stop for her unscheduled departure. When the cabbie shouted, “Go! I am not taking you to anywhere, you are very awful! I don’t want you anymore,” Parker replied, “No one does.” Then she wailed: “I am alone. Look, see? I am pregnant and alone.”

Her misery at that moment is palpable. But so is her later joy, in “Dear Orderly,” when she writes about her son, the one perfect thing that came out of that bad time: “Look at him there, would you? I mean, have you ever? I almost can’t believe it. He’s my only and my one. He’s my ever and after. … He is my job now, the best one I’ve ever had, by a zillion, and I will be doing this one until I drop.”

In a way, Parker’s writing reminds me a bit of Anne Lamott’s, even to its offbeat, unconventionally spiritual aspects. Her most affecting chapter is her last one, “Dear Oyster Picker,” which is about her beloved father’s death. Upon finishing it, not only did I understand the meaning of the oyster shell pictured on the book’s dust cover, but I also understood exactly why Parker felt compelled to become a writer.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas.

Plan your life

Mary-Louise Parker will appear with Mary Karr at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11 at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of Arts & Letters Live. VIP tickets, which include priority seating and access to the signing line as well as a book, $75; general admission $35, with discounts for students and DMA members, at dma.org/tickets or 214-922-1818.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20151030-fiction-after-alice-by-gregory-maguire.ece

If you adored Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s hugely popular prequel set in a reimagined Oz, you may be intrigued by the idea of After Alice, his new novel published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic Victorian fantasy, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Regrettably, this literary pastiche is far less engaging than Wicked. Only hardcore Alicedevotees will have the stamina to push through its unevenly paced narrative, and even they may be disappointed by the oddly lifeless denouement. This is a case where an editor really should have said: “You know what? Let’s lose that last chapter where Darwin just rambles on.”

After Alice is not a sequel to Carroll’s Alice and its companion, Through the Looking-Glass,despite its title’s implication. Instead, it is Maguire’s tale of what happens to the bemused people left aboveground when young Alice Clowd falls down that famous rabbit hole. Her friend, Ada Boyce, goes tumbling after Alice into Wonderland. Thus Ada spends the rest of the book chasing after Alice, who doesn’t reappear until nearly the end.

Ada, the local vicar’s 10-year-old daughter, is nobody’s favorite child. She often is cruelly ignored by servants and parents fixated on her sickly baby brother. “That lummoxing galootress,” the family’s Irish cook calls her; but Ada has a lumpish fortitude that makes up somewhat for her lack of imagination.

Meanwhile, motherless Alice is mostly absent from the story and is only vaguely sketched as a mysterious creature gifted at evading supervision by adults or by her teenage sister, Lydia — the same sister who, in the original Alice’s opening paragraph, reads a book “with no pictures or conversations in it.” It is Lydia who is the center of the aboveground narrative, just as Ada is the center of the underground story.

Maguire, however, fails to make either girl into a compelling heroine who deserves the reader’s investment of time and interest.

When the two younger girls disappear, their elders don’t seem particularly worried about where they may have gone. Lydia, at 15, is far more interested in herself and in the handsome young American abolitionist who has come to Oxford for the day, shepherding the august Charles Darwin on a visit to her father. Indeed, the only one who frets about Ada’s absence is her governess, whose chief concern is that she might be sacked if her charge doesn’t turn up soon.

Underground, Ada is magically freed from her torturous back brace (worn for an unnamed condition, probably scoliosis). Thus liberated, she meets up with many of Carroll’s famous characters, from the Mad Hatter and March Hare to the Walrus and the Carpenter. Maguire’s rendering of these characters is, unfortunately, far less witty than Carroll’s, and nothing particularly original or enchanting is added to any of their established personalities.

At times, Maguire’s prose becomes so elaborately arch that he appears to be striving vainly for Nabokovian heights (an impression confirmed by a bit of dialogue that is an obvious hat tip to the master’s Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle). Granted, he’s trying to tell a story in the florid Victorian style.

But Maguire over-eggs the pudding with a barrage of dense sentences such as this one: “To a deity lolling overhead on bolsters of zephyr, however, the city rises as if out of some underground sea, like Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, that fantasia about the submerged Breton cathedral rising once every hundred years off the island of Ys.” That came in the fourth paragraph of Chapter 1, and even now I am not quite sure why that sentence needed to be there. Only when Maguire stops trying so hard to impress does the narrative sporadically achieve some rhythm and flow.

In addition, serious real-world topics — death, abolition and Darwinism — drain much of the potentially playful tone from the chapters of the book that are set aboveground. In the underground chapters, the fantasy may not be consistently comedic, but at least the Cheshire Cat isn’t discussing the theory of evolution.

Wonderland has its downside, to be sure, what with the Queen of Hearts’ fondness for ordering beheadings. But compared to the dreariness of the Victorian age as depicted by Maguire, it is perhaps no wonder that one lonely, displaced character chooses to stay in Carroll’s fantasy land, rather than return to a real world that can never truly be home.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer. 

After Alice

Gregory Maguire

(William Morrow, $26.99)

RUBBERNECKER by Belinda Bauer

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150904-mystery-review-rubbernecker-by-belinda-bauer.ece

Rubbernecker

Belinda Bauer

(Atlantic Monthly, $24)

In the decade since the success of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we’ve seen many other novels with protagonists who have Asperger’s syndrome. “Aspies” typically are highly intelligent but socially awkward individuals with obsessive interests, idiosyncratic preferences and compulsive behaviors.

British crime writer Belinda Bauer has created one such protagonist, a compelling and sympathetic one, in young Patrick Fort. He’s about to start a term of anatomy classes at a Welsh medical school because he wants “to see what makes people work.”

Patrick doesn’t want to become a doctor. He wants to study anatomy because he has a fascination with death that goes back to his childhood and the loss of his father in a car accident.

Patrick is obsessed with “the thing that changes … between life and death. I can’t feel it; I want to see it. I want to know what it is.”

His burning curiosity is not unlike that of the motorists who slow down to watch the aftermath of a crash: “Rubberneckers. Desperate for a glimpse of death.” He watches horse races, as he used to do with his dad, because it was “the only sport where death was routinely televised.

“With every crashing fall, Patrick felt the shock of the inevitable, and then a tingling in his belly — a bubble of anticipation in case this was the one, this was the horse, this was the moment when all would be revealed to him, when the door might open just a chink and allow him to glimpse a deathly Narnia on the other side.

“He had never come close.”

Bauer weaves her mystery adroitly, moving among several points of view without losing the reader’s attention or interest.

For one character, she creates a bubble of frustrating isolation as a patient in a coma ward; on the other side of that bubble, she sketches one nurse who is an angel of kindness and another whose callous obsession with catching a rich husband leads the reader to the tantalizing edge of a whole new murder mystery.

Bauer also makes us care deeply about Patrick, the solitary protagonist who observes everything and records it all mentally but avoids being physically touched by anyone.

Patrick is in the world, but not quite of the world. He has a prodigious memory, remembering a 12-digit phone number after one recitation. He views life through a veil of emotional distance, yet he experiences it with a strange intensity that is painful and often heartbreaking to witness. He endures casual verbal cruelties and social snubs that would crush most people’s spirits, for they simply roll off him.

Still, Patrick’s mysterious internal wiring contains high-voltage charges, as his classmate Meg comes to see.

“‘What’s it like to be you?’ she asked.

“Patrick was surprised. Nobody had ever asked him what it was like to be him, not even his mother.

… “‘It’s very,’ he said forcefully. ‘Very very. … Very.’

… “Meg simply nodded. ‘It must be.’”

Patrick, though legally and intellectually an adult, can be as innocently oblivious as a young child. He frequently frustrates his mother, who can’t reconcile herself to the fact that her son is hopeless at casual conversation, unresponsive to obvious statements or pointless ones. When Meg tries to become friends with him, Patrick simply doesn’t pick up on her interest.

“She cleared her throat. ‘You’re different, you know.’

“‘Only different from you,’ he said. ‘Not different from me.’”

But Patrick does pick up on a crucial fact, something that none of his fellow anatomy students notice: The stated natural cause of death for their cadaver, known as No. 19, cannot possibly be correct.

Moreover, when he discovers No. 19’s true cause of death, almost no one believes him. Then, a crucial piece of evidence goes missing.

In the wake of his discovery and the disappearing evidence, Patrick is not so much a pursuer of justice as a mad scientist intent upon proving his thesis. But in his willingness to follow the clues, even if it means placing himself in mortal danger, he becomes an inadvertent avenger, a seeker of truth and an unlikely hero.

He will have readers cheering for him all the way.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150807-fiction-review-circling-the-sun-by-paula-mclain.ece

CirclingtheSun_McLain_FINAL+JACKET

Aviation pioneer Beryl Markham, who in 1936 became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean from east to west, is sometimes called “the British Amelia Earhart.”

While she was, indeed, born in England, Markham moved to British East Africa, as Kenya then was known, with her parents when she was just 4 years old. She grew up in Kenya as an Anglo-African during the fading imperial age and lived almost all of her extraordinary life there.

In her new novel, Circling the Sun, Paula McLain takes Markham’s story, which the pilot herself first told in her acclaimed 1942 memoir, West With the Night, and turns it into a moving first-person chronicle of a woman born before her time.

Markham’s West With the Night was admired by Ernest Hemingway, who called it “a bloody wonderful book.” Hemingway, not coincidentally, was a central character in McLain’s previous novel, The Paris Wife, which became a best-seller.

As in The Paris Wife, virtually every main character in Circling the Sun is based on historical fact, and McLain does an excellent job of capturing their physical likenesses and moral centers. But while The Paris Wife told the tale of Hadley Richardson, a woman who is remembered because she was faithfully married to Hemingway, Circling the Sun is all about a restless woman who, despite being married three times, was never completely faithful to anyone but herself.

McLain does not attempt to channel Markham’s more mature voice as captured in her gorgeous West With the Night prose. This is the story of young Beryl Clutterbuck, an incorrigible tomboy who stayed in Kenya with her horse-trainer father after her mother abandoned them and returned to England, unable to bear the hardships of farming in Africa.

“Gradually it became harder to remember my mother’s face, things she had said to me, days we had shared,” Beryl says. “But there were many days ahead of me. They spread out as far as I could see or wish for, the way the plain did all the way to the broken bowl of Menengai, or to [Mount] Kenya’s hard blue peak. It was safer to keep looking forwards.”

Young Beryl’s playmates were native children, and she preferred throwing spears and riding horses to more traditional girls’ games. She resisted governesses and boarding schools until her father gave up on formally educating her. Instead, she followed in his footsteps and became a successful horse trainer, the first woman in Africa licensed to do so. Like her father, she reveled in horse racing: “I had always loved all of it — even what couldn’t be controlled or predicted.”

Beryl’s taste for unpredictability made her helpless to resist her famous lover, the aristocratic big-game hunter and aviator Denys Finch Hatton. When Beryl met him, he was already involved with Karen Blixen, the Danish-born baroness who would become known as Isak Dinesen, author of the memoir Out of Africa.

But Finch Hatton, who was 15 years older than Beryl, belonged to no woman. Charming and brilliant, he “was most himself in wild places,” Beryl says. “More than anyone I’d known, Denys understood how nothing ever holds still for us, or should. The trick is learning to take things as they come and fully, too, with no resistance or fear, not trying to grip them too tightly or make them bend.”

So until its tragic, inevitable end, the three of them were a love triangle: Beryl, Denys and Karen. “We had done a painful dance and lost a lot, we three, hurting one another and ourselves. But extraordinary things had happened, too. I would never forget any of them.”

Beryl Markham lived another 50 years after becoming world-famous, but Circling the Sunconcentrates only on the first part of her life, all the years leading up to her historic flight across the Atlantic in September 1936. McLain doesn’t even show Markham learning to fly until the final few chapters of her novel.

By then, the reader knows her very well, this tall, angular woman with the pale flyaway hair and the sharp profile. The mostly solitary life she led would not have been possible for most Englishwomen of her time, and even today it would be a difficult existence for a woman alone in Africa. McLain skillfully succeeds in portraying the inner life of a singular figure, painted vividly against a vast continent that was the only place Beryl Markham could ever belong.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

 

Circling the Sun

Paula McLain

(Ballantine, $28)

 

Plan your life

Paula McLain will appear at two events Wednesday:

At 1 p.m., she’ll have a short speaking engagement and book signing at the North Richland Hills Public Library, 9015 Grand Ave. Free. A noon reception, which includes a copy of the book, is $40. Details at library.nrhtx.com.

That evening, she’ll appear at Highland Park United Methodist Church, 3300 Mockingbird Lane, as part of Authors Live! The 7 p.m. lecture is free; a 6 p.m. reception, including a signed copy of the book, is $30 and must be reserved at least two days in advance by calling Highland Park United Methodist Church at 214-523-2240 or going to hpumc.org/authorslive.

http://artsblog.dallasnews.com/2015/07/how-a-watchman-reviewer-thought-past-feeling-betrayed-by-an-old-friend.html/

NOTE: Dallas Morning News books editor Michael Merschel asked me to contribute a DMN blog post today, discussing the process of reviewing Go Set a Watchman.  He posted it alongside the review on today’s dallasnews.com.

Former staff writer, regular critic and longtime To Kill a Mockingbird fan Joyce Sáenz Harris wrote our review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. Here’s how her thoughts about the book evolved: 

US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”

When Mike Merschel asked me to review Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I must admit I got ridiculously giddy. This was the best assignment a book reviewer could ask for in 2015, and I was thrilled to be one of the very few people who would be privileged to read Lee’s new novel before publication day.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird in Reader’s Digest Condensed Book form when I was 11, just a few years after it was published and won the 1961 Pulitzer for fiction. Later, of course, I would read and re-read the complete novel many times, and I can remember illustrating scenes from TKAM in pencil drawings for my high-school English class. The Academy Award-winning 1962 film also became an enduring favorite at some point.

So when the UPS deliveryman brought the book to my door last Thursday morning, and I signed for the advance review copy, I simply sat down and started reading. Less than 12 hours later, I had finished all 247 pages, and the book was littered with yellow Post-It paper strips covered with scribbled notes.

Who knew Harper Lee is a Gilbert & Sullivan fan? …NO, cousin Francis Hancock was Aunt Alexandra’s grandson, not her son! …No mention of Boo or the Radleys at all? …What is this rape trial that Atticus WON? …Jem died of a heart attack like their mother did; “they said it ran in her family.” …Dill is in Italy, just like Truman Capote was. …Harper Lee invented “What Would Atticus Do?” long before the T-shirts and bumper stickers of today.

In the second half of the book, however, I had to stop reading and digest what was happening before I could finish.

What the what? Atticus Finch, that secular saint, heading up the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council? Tolerating the speech of white supremacists and arguing with Jean Louise about whether she really wants black people integrated into white Southern society, voting in mass, holding public office? I felt very uncomfortable as I continued reading, as if I had been betrayed by an old friend, rather than by a fictional character in a favorite book.

But after finishing Watchman, I put on my reviewer’s hat and thought not like a fan, but like a writer, like an editor. Eventually, I realized that it is a novelist’s prerogative to mess with readers’ minds. To make us think, to make us doubt our cherished preconceptions. Their job is not to foster our pleasant illusions, but to present us with some sort of truth.

For Harper Lee, Watchman was her truth, because this Atticus is the father she knew as an adult. A.C. Lee, the author’s father and the courtly Southern lawyer on whom she modeled Atticus Finch, was in fact a segregationist, according to her biographer, Charles J. Shields.

I finally understood why Watchman became a discarded first draft, and why Mockingbird was written instead. Lee’s editors wanted a different, more uplifting story with a white-knight father figure standing tall for justice. They knew what people like to read, and the story of an adult daughter wrestling with the fact that her dad is an old segregationist wasn’t exactly best-seller material for a first-time novelist. No, far better to write the story of a child learning about life’s tragic unfairness, about the loss of innocence mitigated by the surety of a father’s love, wisdom and goodness.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Now I realized what it must have cost Harper Lee to write this portrait of her father — and how relieved she must have been to revert, in Mockingbird, to the Atticus who was the father she adored as a child, rather than the aging segregationist with whom she argued about the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board decision as an adult. She wouldn’t have wanted this portrait published during his lifetime, not really. And A.C. Lee’s heart would have been crushed by it, if it had been.

Instead, A.C.’s heart grew a few sizes after Mockingbird was published. In a case of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” he began to act like a real-life Atticus the Good, campaigning for redistricting to protect black voters before he died in April 1962.

Now, if you wish, you can certainly avoid reading Go Set a Watchman altogether, or wait until you’re feeling calmer about this whole thing. Or you can decide to believe that this is Uncanny Valley Atticus, as Jeff Weiss puts it, in an alternate universe.

Or you can settle in to read and accept Watchman, with all of its many flaws, timeline inconsistencies and continuity errors, as part of the Mockingbird canon. You can laugh out loud at more of Scout’s youthful escapades, learn further salacious details of her cousin Joshua Singleton St. Clair, the insane poet, and at last find out the name of Scout and Jem’s mother. You can discover who Jem took to his prom and what kind of wardrobe malfunction Scout suffered there. You can even witness a version of “I am Spartacus” played out at Maycomb County High School.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee wrote songs of innocence, but first she wrote songs of experience. With Go Set a Watchman, open-minded Mockingbird fans can now have both. To me, it just makes Lee’s legacy that much more interesting, complex and timely. I hope her faithful readers will hear what she has to teach us, because it is still worth learning, even if we find it rather hard to read.

Lee is a lifelong Methodist, as am I. One thing we learned in Sunday school is: There is only one perfect Father, and he is the one in heaven.

His name is not Atticus Finch.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a freelance writer in Dallas. Read her review of Go Set a Watchman here

 

US cover of "Go Set a Watchman"

US cover of “Go Set a Watchman”

http://www.dallasnews.com/lifestyles/books/20150713-review-some-will-rejoice-others-resent-harper-lee-s-go-set-a-watchman.ece

By JOYCE SÁENZ HARRIS

Special Contributor

Published: 13 July 2015 10:48 AM

When last we saw young Scout Finch of Maycomb, Ala., it was 1935. Scout had survived a murder attempt, had finally met her mysterious neighbor Boo Radley and was safe at home with her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus. That is, as every reader knows, the ending of Harper Lee’s 1960 novel, To Kill a Mockingbird — the most beloved Pulitzer Prize-winning book in history.

So from the moment it was announced in February that the Go Set a Watchman manuscript had been discovered in Lee’s archives, her readers entertained doubts and hopes.

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

Harper Lee. Photo by Penny Weaver/AP

The reality: This companion piece to Mockingbird, published Tuesday, will complicate Lee’s legacy in ways we never expected. Some readers will actively resent Lee’s revelations, while others will rejoice in her unsentimental realism. Both camps, though, will enjoy the many additional flashbacks to Mockingbird days and Scout’s teen years.

Watchman begins in the early 1950s with Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, 26, returning to Maycomb from New York City for a family visit. Atticus, beset with rheumatoid arthritis at 72, is still practicing law and still the moral center of Jean Louise’s universe. But everything else in Maycomb seems to have changed.

Brother Jem is two years gone; he dropped dead of a heart attack, just as their mother did. Her old friend Dill also is gone, if only to Italy. Atticus sold his house and built a new one; the Finches’ old home has been torn down and an ice-cream stand built in its place. Aunt Alexandra moved in to care for Atticus when their old housekeeper, Calpurnia, retired; and Uncle Jack, the doctor, has retired to Maycomb with his ancient cat.

Though the old guard of Maycomb resists change, the town has acquired a new middle class in the postwar GI Bill baby boom. At Finch’s Landing, the family mansion has been sold to become a hunting club. A sawmill has eliminated swimming at Barker’s Eddy. Even at the Finches’ Methodist church, modern influences threaten their best-loved hymns.

Readers will immediately notice that where Mockingbird was a first-person narrative through young Scout’s eyes, Watchman is told in the third person. Yet Lee puts us right inside the adult Jean Louise’s head, and we know this is indeed our old and dear friend, the “juvenile desperado” just grown a little older.

So when Jean Louise finds her adored father consorting politically with racists at the Maycomb County Citizens’ Council, it is the worst shock of her life. Her discovery is a punch to the gut, making us nearly as ill as it makes her.

How is it possible that Atticus Finch, the inspiration and role model for generations of real-life fathers and aspiring lawyers, is not the man we believed he was?

That we’ve waited 55 years for this thunderbolt makes it all the more stunning, for the pop-culture cult of Atticus the Good is one we boomers grew up and grew old with. So we ache with Jean Louise when she realizes in horror that “she was born color blind” while her father was not.

Atticus is indeed a gentleman, kindly to everyone; he reveres the law above all things. But he has fallen from his pedestal, and Jean Louise feels betrayed. So do we.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience,” Uncle Jack tells his niece. He knows that in order for Jean Louise to become her own person, she has to see his brother as a fallible human being. Instead of believing Atticus to be the best, wisest man she knows, his daughter must accept him as a man who will “always do it by the letter and the spirit of the law. That’s the way he lives.”

Watchman is far from perfect. The text wants editing, and careful readers will spot several notable continuity gaps from the Mockingbird text. Aunt Alexandra’s son has the wrong name; Boo Radley isn’t mentioned at all; and a rape trial is recalled very differently from the one we know as Tom Robinson’s.

But 60 years after she began creating Scout’s story, Harper Lee demonstrates that it is indeed timeless. Today the nation still grapples with the harsh realities of race and civil rights; societal shifts still are divisive. Empathy too often eludes us, and children remain reluctant to let go of the cherished belief that a beloved father always knows best.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer who first read To Kill a Mockingbird 50 years ago.

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

(Harper, $27.99)

Sarai Walker’s novel Dietland is, not to put too fine a point on it, subversive and even shocking. It is discomforting to read, exploring as it does unsettling themes of body shaming, misogyny and hypersexualized mores. This is an unflinching look at a society that is very much our own, although it feels as if the novel is set perhaps 15 minutes in the future.

Walker’s protagonist is Plum Kettle, who is 29, depressed and miserable. Plum has spent her whole life struggling with her weight and with the pain of being stared at, judged and bullied because she is fat.

No diet, not even “Waist Watchers,” works for Plum. She has never had a boyfriend; she has acquaintances but no real women friends; and she hates her job, working from home answering letters from despondent teenage girls for a glossy Manhattan-based teen magazine called Daisy Chain. Thanks to an absentee cousin, Plum does have a nice apartment in Brooklyn. But she lives for only one thing: the promise that someday, if she spends $20,000 on weight-loss surgery, she will be smaller.

“I wanted to become smaller so I wouldn’t be seen,” Plum confides. “If I was smaller, they wouldn’t stare. They wouldn’t be mean.”

One day, Plum notices that she is being observed by a young woman wearing bright-colored tights, combat boots and raccoon-like eye makeup. Instead of being mean to Plum, the young woman, whose name is Leeta, turns out to be an emissary from Julia, another employee of Daisy Chain’s huge, Conde Nast-like media conglomerate. Julia, in turn, introduces Plum to a women’s collective named after the Muse of eloquence — Calliope House, owned and run by Verena Baptist.

Verena is independently wealthy, having inherited millions from her mother, who made a fortune selling horrible diet meals and shakes to women and girls like Plum, who as a teenager bought into the Baptist Weight Loss Plan. When her parents died, Verena shut down the company and later wrote an exposé called “Adventures in Dietland,” detailing all the ways that her mother had damaged her daughter’s spirit and exploited the women who, like Plum, believed in her diet sales pitch.

Meeting Verena launches Plum’s journey through a series of difficult challenges that will forever change her. Verena is determined to help Plum reach self-acceptance, and that means not going through with her plan for weight-loss surgery. Verena’s “New Baptist Plan” includes a makeover mentored by a former TV star, meant to raise Plum’s consciousness about how difficult, expensive and painful it is for a woman to maintain the quality of attractiveness that we’ll politely call desirability.

At Calliope House, Plum finally finds friends, and she finds herself as well. “I was pleased that I no longer needed voluminous amounts of food to feel satisfied,” Plum realizes. “I was learning to listen to my body’s hunger cues and desires, which helped me know when I needed to eat, and what, and how much. … I would never restrict myself again or do math before eating.”

In the meantime, strange things are happening in the world. A guerrilla group calling itself Jennifer has begun targeting those who exploit and abuse women’s bodies.

The Sun, a British tabloid famous for its daily pictures of topless “Page Three girls,” gets blackmailed by Jennifer into printing photos of nude men instead. “Lad mags,” racy men’s magazines, likewise are pressured into acquiescence.

The world’s most famous porn star is murdered in broad daylight; more than a dozen rapists are kidnapped, tortured and killed. A famous European film director, clearly modeled after Roman Polanski, suddenly vanishes; so does a Super Bowl athlete accused of raping two women. Suddenly, there is a price to be paid for the exploitation of women, and the media world is on edge, half admiring and half fearful.

Jennifer is the world’s most-sought criminal, but who is this elusive ghost of a guerrilla leader? It turns out that Jennifer is someone not too far removed from Plum herself. “Jennifer had made up seem like down, had left us all spinning and dizzy, had set the world on fire, and she was still out there,” Plum says.

Jennifer hasn’t magically changed cruel jerks into gentlemen, of course. The difference is in Plum, now a wiser woman who, in the words of Maya Angelou, refuses to be anyone’s victim.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

If you’re a big fan of the PBS series Call the Midwife — and if you’re really, really interested in birthing babies — Sally Hepworth’s novel, The Secrets of Midwives, might be just your cup of Horlicks: comforting, slightly sweet and unlikely to keep you awake at night.

This is the Australian writer’s first book to be published in the United States, and it’s getting a sizable publicity push. However, despite enthusiastic blurbs from the stellar Liane Moriarty and other well-known writers of women’s fiction, The Secrets of Midwivesdoesn’t quite live up to its marketing hype.

Part of the problem is that, aside from its unflinching clinical details of natural birthing techniques, there’s not much new in this three-generation story. The Secrets of Midwivesalternates chapters from the points of view of grandmother Floss, mother Grace and daughter Neva. All of them are trained midwives — but unfortunately, the three women are not terrifically engaging characters.

Floss and Grace live with their respective mates on Conanicut Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, while Neva lives on the mainland. Floss is an elderly lesbian and a long-ago emigrant from England; Grace is a 60-year-old hippie who distrusts M.D.s in general and loathes obstetricians in particular; and Neva, at 29, is a rebel who is single, unattached and, as her mother and grandmother are shocked to discover, 30 weeks pregnant.

“How could I not have known?” Grace whines several times. “I’m her mother, I’m amidwife.” Floss assures her daughter that Grace herself had “nothing more than a thickened waist until the eighth month.” Apparently Neva was surrounded by midwives and doctors who were oblivious to a pregnant woman under their very noses. She also refuses to reveal the identity of her baby’s father, which turns her mother into an unbearable snoop.

One major issue with The Secrets of Midwives: The men are bores. Grace’s long-dead dad is nasty and boring; Grace’s accountant husband is blandly boring; and Neva’s love interest, who is not her baby daddy, is sweet but boring. When you’re reading women’s fiction and you don’t care who the baby daddy is, that’s a big problem. Worse: The infrequent sex scenes aren’t very sexy.

Hepworth’s prose is workmanlike, and her similes occasionally stumble into sheer awkwardness: “When I wanted to launch into banter, my throat clamped shut like a preterm cervix.” Yes, really.

It is unclear why Hepworth decided to set The Secrets of Midwives in New England, since there seems no particular reason for its Rhode Island locale beyond the weary plot device of having a birth occur on an island during a winter storm. Conanicut is portrayed so nondescriptly that it could have been any coastal island in the Pacific Northwest.

Therein is one of the book’s biggest problems: It doesn’t feel authentic. The characters don’t think or talk like Americans, much less New Englanders. In one instance, Grace thinks: Red sky at morning, shepherds take warning. That’s the British version of the saying, and perhaps British-born Floss would have used it. But Grace grew up in the U.S., and most Americans would say, Sailors take warning.

The Secrets of Midwives is most likely to appeal to women readers who have a particular interest in birthing practices, especially in regard to home births and those that take place at birthing centers. It pays proper respect to the traditions of midwifery, and it paints a glowing picture of the deep satisfactions in assisting with a natural birth. But it simply doesn’t delve deeply enough into either its characters or its setting, and in the end, it fails to deliver.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

books@dallasnews.com

The Secrets of Midwives

Sally Hepworth

(St. Martin’s, $25.99)

Roz Chast, 60, is a Brooklyn native who has been drawing her famously subversive, angst-ridden cartoons for The New Yorker since 1978.

Because she was an only child, Chast found herself solely responsible for making huge decisions — including finally moving her parents to “the Place,” an assisted-living facility near her own home in Connecticut. As first her father and then her mother faded away with senile dementia, Chast struggled with conflicting emotions of love, guilt, fear and sorrow.

She turned her experiences into a best-selling graphic memoir, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury, $28), perhaps the most affecting cartoonist’s tale of a parent-child relationship since Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus.  The memoir was a finalist for a National Book Award, won a $50,000 Kirkus Prize for nonfiction and was just named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography.

She’ll be discussing the book Wednesday night at the Dallas Museum of Art. Ahead of that, she answered questions by email.

Your fans know there is personal anxiety in almost everything you do. But this book, being a memoir, is quite different. How surprised have you been by its positive critical and popular reception? Did you suspect, when you began the project, that no one would be even remotely interested in such a personal story?

I think I expected something in between those two. That some people would be interested in the topic, only because I had friends who were going through similar things — taking care of a parent or an in-law that was starting to become more dependent.

Did you have it in mind eventually to write something, even as all of this was happening over the eight-year period that you documented? Or did the thought of publishing only come later as you reviewed your journals, drawings, photographs and the poems and memorabilia that you had saved?

I didn’t have it in mind during the entire time at all. A lot of the very specific details came from emails I’d written to friends. When I decided to write this book, I would type certain words into my email search boxes, like “the Place,” or “my mother,” or the name of my mother’s aide, or “Ensure,” etc. And emails detailing a specific conversation I’d had on that topic would come up.

In addition to emails, I had my weekly batches of cartoons I did for The New Yorker. The batch is a group of rough sketches, and then they select one (or none, on a bad week) from that group of seven or so cartoons.

So some of the cartoons in the book (the one about the olives, the Ouija board one, the one about the oven mitt, the cheese danish, several others) were ones I had submitted to, and were rejected by, The New Yorker. And I had the journal — the yellow notebook I refer to in the book — that had all the conversations about logistics: Meals on Wheels, care agencies, visits to Maimonides [a hospital in Brooklyn], and so forth.

Your affection for your father, George, was made clear, and I got a little teary reading your account of his death. Your relationship with your mother, Elizabeth, was more complicated and ambivalent. It wasn’t her death scene that made me ache for her; it was your description of when you brought her to spend the night at your home after your father’s death, and “she suffered one of the worst, if not the worst, indignities of old age: loss of bowel control. … My poor, poor mother!” That’s the scene that choked me up. How hard was that to write?

That was kind of hard, because it was so awful, so humiliating for her. But I hate how the topic of getting really old is not really talked about — the loss of body control, etc. It’s totally glossed over.

If I believed TV commercials, we’re all going to be playing tennis and eating tasty, healthy gourmet meals until we’re 115. Then we’ll die quietly and non-messily in our sleep, at exactly the same moment as our partner, if we have one.

A new children’s book that you wrote and drew, Around the Clock, was just published on Jan. 13. Have you ever been inspired by special things you drew or wrote for your own two kids, or by things your kids have said to you?

I do get inspired by things my kids have done or said. Usually it’s tangential, but occasionally it’s very direct.

When my daughter was around 16, she was doing homework in the living room while listening to some hip-hop music. I came into the room and did a little lame Mom dance, just to tease her. You know, when you sort of shuffle and wave your arms a little, and slightly move your hips in a Mom way? She looked up and said quite seriously: “Mom. Stop. You’re hurting me.” Which cracked me up. I used that line as-is.

How often are you able to rework a rejected cartoon and get it accepted? And: Is cartoon editor Bob Mankoff an easier or a tougher sell than his predecessor, Lee Lorenz?

I rework maybe one out of 10 cartoons. Sometimes I have to rework them three or four times, which I don’t mind if I really love the idea. After that point, I give up. As to who’s a tougher sell: both about the same.

What is your favorite Charles Addams cartoon?

There are SO MANY great Addams cartoons. The one where the Addams family is on the roof, dumping a cauldron of boiling oil on the carolers below, is pretty sweet.

Your dad is quoted in Can’t We Talk as saying: “No one could deny that religion caused a lot of problems in the world. Fanatics want to kill people who aren’t on their team!” How do you feel about the fact that cartoonists have taken center stage in the conversation on global terrorism?

My dad was right.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.


Plan your life

Roz Chast will appear at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, January 28, at the Dallas Museum of Art, 1717 N. Harwood St., as part of Arts & Letters Live. Reception at 6:30 with the author for Annual Series Supporters. Tickets $35 for public, $30 for DMA Partners and $15 for students. DMA.org/tickets or 214-922-1818.