Sunday, October 19, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

I just read this again for the first time since high school and truly couldn't believe what a fine novel it is. It was among the first works of real literature I ever read, so in that sense it had a huge impact on my life. But now, with a few years and books behind me, I was floored by the greatness of this book. It's as deftly crafted as just about anything I've read, so that everything unfolds as naturally and inevitably as real life.

Lee carries the frame story (Boo Radley and the kids) so deep and so far that it becomes parallel, rather than simply bookends, to the story of Tom Robinson's trial. By the time we get back to Jem's broken arm, and the two stories finally, inevitably twine together, we've forgotten that was how Lee opened the novel.

The characters, too, even less central ones like Miss Maudie, are as tangible as our own next door neighbors. Lee doesn't give us a single flat character, not one that's purely good or evil, not one with only one obvious motivation. No matter how repulsive or heroic, no matter how minor - from Mayella Ewell to Aunt Alexandra and Walter Cunningham to Atticus - every character is complicatedly human. In fact, it's hard to label any of them really "minor," in the usual sense of being on the sidelines and not well known by the reader. We feel we know them all, as if we ourselves lived in Maycomb.

Lee gives the same care to her message. Her timeless, weighty themes weave subtly and without artifice through every page. Harper Lee wrote a book that would influence generations, with every event, character, and word carefully crafted over years of writing and managed to make it sound effortless.

My only (minor) quibble is that the narrator's insight into the character and history of her town is sometimes beyond the years of our admittedly smart and insightful first person narrator, Scout. But, really, I feel guilty even mentioning this small distraction. It's a great book (as in "the great works of fiction"), and if you haven't read it lately, pick it up.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Our Town

Somehow I never read Our Town in high school or in six years as an English major, but just this week I enjoyed it very much. This is a bare-bones, stripped-down play with a pointed message: that we should wonder at and be grateful for the big and small details in life while we're still living it - "clocks ticking...and Mama's sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths... and sleeping and waking up."

The back of the book calls it "the great American play," and though I've hardly ready enough drama to either agree or disagree with that assessment, I can see why he said it. The professor who wrote the Foreward also makes an impassioned case against those who complain that it's dated, simplistic, sentimental, or uneventful:

"Our Town is anything but dated, it is timeless; it is simple, but also
profound; it is full of genuine sentiment, which is not the same as its being sentimental; and, as far as its being uneventful, well, the event of the play is huge: it's life itself."
Read Our Town for yourself and see if you don't agree. Or if you rolled your eyes at it in high school and you've now got a few more years of experience under your belt, give it another shot.