Our Souls at Night

Our Souls at Night book cover

“I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.”

“What? How do you mean?”

“I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.”

He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious….

….he stood at the door watching her, this medium-sized seventy-year-old woman with white hair walking away under the trees in the patches of light thrown out by the corner street lamp. What in the hell, he said. Now don’t get ahead of yourself.”

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

There is no writer quite like Kent Haruf. He’s been a favorite of mine for a long time. I wrote about his other novels, Plainsong (my favorite), Eventide, and Benediction here.

Haruf passed away a year ago, and his final novel, Our Souls at Night, about the blossoming of an older couple’s relationship, was just published.

Like his other novels, Our Souls at Night takes place in the fictitious eastern Colorado town of Holt. I’m not going to say too much about this book because Haruf’s writing doesn’t lend itself to lots comment and analysis; I think that might ruin it for readers new to this author.

Instead, I’ll refer you to this review by Ursula Le Guin, who greatly admires Haruf’s writing and does a good job of summarizing Haruf’s themes, characters and style.

If you are new to Kent Haruf, you could start with Plainsong. I think you’ll be entranced by the characters in the lonely little desert town of Holt and you’ll want to read the other books.

Our Souls at Night would make a wonderful holiday gift.

“They stopped in one of the towns for hamburgers and then drove up the highway through the Arkansas River canyon, the beautiful fast water, steep red jagged cliffs on each side, there were Rocky Mountain sheep along the road, all ewes with short sharp horns, and went on and then turned off toward North Fork Campground on County Road 240 and entered the national forest…..They could hear it running and rushing. The clear icy water, with brook trout holed up in the hollows below the rocks. There were tall fir trees and big ponderosas and aspen along the creek and back in the hillside.”

The Wonder Garden

The Wonder Garden book cover

“She opens her eyes and looks at the television, a car commercial. An American couple achieves the top of a mountain, commanding a vista. She breathes in and breathes out. It is all right to retreat. She will pull back, she will redraw her boundaries. She will find her balance. When she emerges again, she will be refreshed, reenergized. She will be the best Rosalie she can be. The best and only.”

The Wonder Garden is a collection of exquisite short stories by Lauren Acampora, a new writer whom I’ve added to my “read-everything-by-this-author” list.

I’ve been reading more short stories lately, and I especially like these because they are linked: a protagonist in one story appears as a supporting character in the other stories, so that the collection reads like novel.

The stories are wickedly funny, psychologically complex, dark, uniquely American, and occasionally bleak – but leavened with an understated joy in the ebbs and flows and seasons of life. Living in suburbia and having raised children there, I find them so resonant.

Fictitious Old Cranbury is John Cheever and Mad Men territory, except post 9/11: an upscale Connecticut town on Long Island Sound, the home of a few have-nots but mostly haves. There is a memorial dedicated to five fathers who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald and were killed on September 11.

The houses of Old Cranbury form a motif that further links the stories. The restored salt boxes and farmhouses, pretentious mansions, and humbler ranches fitted with granite countertops and fake shutters reflect their inhabitants’ aspirations and obsessions.

Acampora has compassion for her characters, but she can be scathing, too. Rosalie, for example (see above quote) is the type of hyperactive suburban mother who does everything and knows everyone and gives over her life to her five children: she is on the school board, she is prominent in the PTA, she hosts a book club, she makes themed halloween costumes for the entire family, including her brain surgeon husband. She is a good Christian woman who understands she has been greatly blessed and decides to host a poor Bangladeshi foreign exchange student for a semester.

There is a wonderful turning point in the story when the student, Nayana, expresses her sympathy for Noah, Rosalie’s youngest.  Rosalie is puzzled by this, and Nayana explains that Noah had revealed his true history to her: he was adopted into the family, having lost his birth father in 9/11. Noah’s story is sheer fabrication and Rosalie is horrified, having seen to it that her children have lacked for nothing.

Confronting Noah, she is undone by this previously unseen side of her son: it may as well be true, he says, because his neurosurgeon father is never around, implying that Rosalie, too, is lacking as a mother. Concurrent threads in the story reveal that the all-male members of the school board condescend to Rosalie and, most chillingly of all, her husband seems to view her with contempt.

I disliked Rosalie and was highly entertained by her, but at the same I recognized that, though she works hard and means well, she is an aging, marginalized woman in what is still a sexist culture. She is in many respects a throwback to the 1950s, pre-feminist, stay-at-home wives.

Another story is about a young single mother who meets a brain surgeon (yes, Rosalie’s husband) and really believes he will whisk her away to a glamorous life in Paris.

The brain surgeon gets his own story, and we find out he has a few really bizarre secrets of his own.

I loved the aging artist and his wife who transcend themselves to make one last work of art.

Then there’s the newly married advertising executive compelled to leave his job so he can follow his animal spirit.

And the 50-something real estate broker caught in traffic who decides to just stop; she turns off the ignition as cars maneuver around her and spends a long night in the driver’s seat, reviewing her life.

Here is a couple who live as though it’s the 18th century and regularly attend early American reenactments. I recognize this ritual of the children leaving home after a holiday visit:

“The next morning, Cheryl and Roger drive them to the airport. They embrace at the security gate. Both parents resist the itch to remind and advise, to command their son to complete the semester, to tell their daughter to skip Afrikaans. Instead, they let their children pull out of their arms and join the security line. They watch them remove their shoes and put them on the conveyer belt….They watch their children pass through the metal detector’s trellis and, on the other side, give a brief wave and disappear around a corner. They will sit together for the six-hour flight, then part ways in San Francisco, one aimed south, the other east. By the time the sun sets in New England, they will be speeding over freeways their parents have never driven, along the lurid blue coastline at the edge of America….”

In another story, the young adult children of some of the characters we’ve met go to a music festival, including Noah, Rosalie’s son, now a few years older. I love the final image in this passage, where we see Old Cranbury from the perspective of a young person who grew up there:

“Eventually, she will distance herself from the incident, tamp it into a story she tells at parties. She will put herself apart from the man who died. He was fundamentally different, she will rationalize, not from Old Cranbury, unanchored by good parents and constructive surroundings….Far off to the side, before the parking lot, Bethany notices a gathering of people on an open field. This would be the morning yoga session, offered to those able to rise early enough, still interested in breathing. The rows of people move in sync, adopting the same poses, configuring and reconfiguring their limbs like children experimenting with their bodies. Bethany watches as they all bend at once to plant their hands upon the bare field, then arch up in unison, a hundred arms saluting the sun.”

Oh, and, by the way, we haven’t seen the last of Rosalie, who rises like a phoenix in the final story.

Lauren Acampora lives in a suburban town much like the one she depicts. Her husband is an artist, and one of his works is the cover art for The Wonder Garden.

This is one book to add to your holiday wish list, and it’s a great book club choice.

Here is a video that features Lauren Acampora and her husband:

The Collapse of Western Civilization (in 50 pages)

WesternCivilization“The year 2009 is viewed as ‘the last best chance’ the Western world had to save itself…”

The Collapse of Western Civilization is a disturbing 50-page work of fiction that reads with the authority of nonfiction.

In the Second People’s Republic of China in the year 2393, a scholar writes an account the Great Collapse of 2093, brought about by failure to take action on climate change.

Pair it with CCR’s Bad Moon Rising; you can read it in an hour or two.

The book came about when co-author Naomi Oreskes, a geologist and historian who teaches at Harvard, reviewed the scholarly literature on climate change to see if indeed there was a lack of consensus among scientists, as is often claimed.

After looking at 1,000 peer-reviewed articles, she concluded that in fact scientists do agree that a high concentration of greenhouse gas is causing climate change.

When Oreskes published her findings in Science, she was championed by the likes of Al Gore. At the same time, to her astonishment, she began receiving hate mail. As she said in an interview, articles published in the scholarly literature are typically ignored by the public.

She and coauthor Eric Conway hoped a work of fiction that remained true to the facts of science might change opinions. Conway is a fan of science fiction and has been especially influenced by Frank Herbert’s Dune and Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogies about Mars and climate change.

It’s unsettling to read about ideas and ways of life that we take for granted portrayed as extreme short-sightedness, self-delusion, and magical thinking.  The Collapse of Western Civilization will give you a jolt. It’s a quick, page-turning read to put you in a receptive frame of mind when the UN/Paris Climate Change Conference begins on November 30.

Here are some excerpts:

“There is no need to rehearse the details of the human tragedy that occurred; every schoolchild knows of the terrible suffering. Suffice it to say that total losses – social, cultural, economic, and demographic – were greater than any in recorded human history. Survivors’ accounts make clear that many thought the end of the human race was near.”

“At the time, most countries still used the archaic concept of a gross domestic product, a measure of consumption, rather than the Bhutanian concept of gross domestic happiness to evaluate well-being in a state.”

“…survivors in northern inland regions of Europe, Asia, and North America, as well as inland and high-altitude regions of South America, were able to regroup and rebuild. The human populations of Australia and Africa, of course, were wiped out.”

Commonly used terms that we don’t question are cast as old-fashioned and obsolete in the Lexicon of Archaic Terms at the end of the book:

“capitalism: ….One popular notion about capitalism of the period was that it operated through a process of creative destruction. Ultimately, capitalism was paralyzed in the face of the rapid climate destabilization it drove, destroying itself.”

“invisible hand: A form of magical thinking, popularized in the eighteenth century, that economic markets in a capitalist system were “balanced” by the actions of an unseen, immaterial power, which both ensured that markets functioned efficiently and that they would address human needs. Belief in the invisible hand….formed a kind of quasi-religious foundation for capitalism.”

“Period of the Penumbra: the shadow of anti-intellectualism that fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world during the second half of the twentieth century, preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.”

Coming Back to Life book coverFor an antidote to all the doom, read Joanna Macy‘s books, Coming Back to Life and Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In Without Going Crazy. See also her short film, Joanna Macy and The Great Turning, about civilization’s shift from industrial growth to sustainability.

Have you read any good books about climate change? Are you planning to follow upcoming events related to the UN Conference on Climate Change? Are there local activities planned for your area?

Nine books that can (help) save the planet

Laudato Si books

It still amazes me that there has not been more discussion of climate change in the media in the United States, nor have the presidential candidates said much. But we seem, finally, to have turned a corner; more people are paying attention.

Recently, stories have been published about Exxon’s alleged campaign of climate change disinformation and denial, while another industry leader has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030. This week’s Hurricane Patricia was the strongest hurricane ever recorded at sea, while climate scientists expect 2015 to be the hottest year on record. I’ve a son living temporarily in southern California, and I just read that mosquitos carrying dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever have arrived. Scientists believe they are rapidly reproducing in part because of the drought.

Countries around the world are preparing for the 2015 UN Conference on Climate Change to be held in Paris November 30 – December 11. There will be climate marches in major cities around the world on November 28 and 29 and a Mass Mobilization and Civil Disobedience Action in Paris on December 12.

When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, he spoke to Congress, the United Nations, and other groups about the need for action on climate change, framing it as the greatest moral issue of our time. His climate change encyclical, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, calls for the world to adopt an integrated ecology that combines eco-justice, which understands the earth has limits, with social justice, which recognizes that the poor are the hardest hit by the ravages of climate change.

The Pope calls for “a revolution of tenderness, a revolution of the heart” in regards to the earth and the earth’s poor.

The Huffington Post article at this link is a brief and excellent introduction to the concept of integral ecology. The author of the article, a former NASA researcher, says: “The fates of all peoples are linked, and they are linked ultimately to the fate of the earth. What befalls the earth befalls us all.”

Here is a link to the Buddhist perspective on climate change: A Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change

If you will be following the UN Conference on Climate Change and would like to do some reading beforehand, here are eight more of my favorite fiction and nonfiction titles that are relevant:

Arcadia book coverArcadia, by Lauren Goff

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

The Collapse of Western Civilization, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway (See my next blog post about this fascinating fictitious “report,” written in 2393 from the Second People’s Republic of China, chronicling reasons for the collapse of western culture.)

This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert

The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding

The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben

The Only Kayak, by Kim Heacox

And if you are an earth and nature lover, you absolutely must acquaint yourselves with these writers if you haven’t already:

Wendell Berry (essays and poetry); Mary Oliver (poetry); Barry Lopez (See “The Case for Going Uncivilized.”)

This Changes Everything book cover

This is heavy reading; if you’d like to be uplifted, I’ve included a link to Pope Francis’ speech to families below. Even though it does not specifically address climate change, the Pope’s warmth and passion are amazing. And there are many parallels between our nuclear families and the family composed of all creatures on mother earth, aren’t there?

Are you planning to participate in any climate change events before or during the UN Climate Change Conference? Do you belong to a climate change group? If you’ve read other good books about the topic, please let us know in the comments.

If you believe we need to act to prevent disastrous climate change, please share this post on your favorite social media.

“I wish to address every living person on this planet.”

“I urgently appeal, then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.”    Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home

Columbia River Gorge

(Columbia Gorge) “If we acknowledge the value and fragility of nature and, at the same time, our God-given abilities, we can finally leave behind the modern myth of unlimited material progress.” Pope Francis

Pope Francis will visit the United States September 22 – 27 and will no doubt speak about climate change.

His recently published encyclical on the environment and human ecology can be downloaded for free or ordered at this link: Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.

I believe Laudato Si’ will prove to be one of the most important documents of our time. It is a stirring, eloquent, and direct call to action.

I’ll be featuring it here on Books Can Save a Life during the pope’s visit. I hope you’ll read it along with me and join in our discussion. I welcome both secular and faith-based perspectives.

On Care for Our Common Home is urgent and wide-ranging; you may be surprised at the topics addressed as the pope seeks to show how our values and our actions have far-reaching implications for humanity and for the planet.

Here are some excerpts to get us started:

“…the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor…”

“The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

“The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

“…access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity.”

“We seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”

“We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”

“…when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously…True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data which eventually leads to overload and confusion, a sort of mental pollution….Today’s media….shield us from direct contact with the pain, the fears and the joys of others and the complexity of their personal experiences….alongside the exciting possibilities offered by these media, a deep and melancholic dissatisfaction with interpersonal relations, or a harmful sense of isolation, can also arise.”

Please share this post on social media and leave a comment. Will you be watching and listening to Pope Francis? Have you read, or read about, Laudato Si’? Do you agree that it may prove to be one of the most important documents of our time?

Laudato Si' books

Circling the Sun

A life has to move or it stagnates. Even this life, I think. Every tomorrow ought not to resemble every yesterday.”  Beryl Markham

Circling the Sun book cover

If you want one last, lush, escapist summer read, consider Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, a fictionalized account of the life of Beryl Markham,  the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west.

Born in England and raised in Kenya, Markham was a larger-than-life adventuress and socialite – a renowned horse trainer, an accomplished bush pilot, perpetually in the spotlight of gossip and scandal.

Especially if you’re a woman of a certain age, you might remember the romantic Out of Africa, a 1985 movie based on the memoir by Dutch writer Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen), who for some years ran a coffee plantation near Nairobi. Karen, played by Meryl Streep, had a long-term affair with charismatic safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford.) Denys had the power to make women of the day swoon, but was adamantly against commitment and marriage. Karen and Beryl became friends, and Beryl went on to have a secret, short-lived affair with Denys.

Though Beryl married three times and had other lovers – allegedly one of them Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester –  many believe that Denys Hatton was the true love of her life. Author Paula McLain is adept at writing about affairs of the heart – she did a masterful job in depicting Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage in The Paris Wife – and she depicts Beryl’s affair with Denys in a sympathetic light, while plumbing the depths of the friendship between Beryl and Karen, who were in many respects kindred spirits even though they loved the same man.

I enjoy Cleveland-based author Paula McLain’s writing. She was drawn to Beryl Markham’s story when she learned that Beryl’s mother abandoned her at the age of four, only to reappear again when Beryl was twenty – which is exactly what happened to Paula McLain. She calls it a “shared emotional genealogy.” McLain writes with particular authenticity and empathy as she explores the lifelong effects, both good and bad, of maternal abandonment.

Despite Beryl’s remarkable feat of aviation, there isn’t a whole lot about flying in this novel. McLain instead focuses on the first half of Beryl’s life – her remarkable childhood in Kenya as she grew up next door to and on an intimate basis with the Kipsigis tribes, and her years spent learning and perfecting her horse training skills. McLain portrays Beryl’s love of Kenya in lyrical prose that will cast a spell over you if you love exotic lands and nature still relatively unspoiled by the ravages of civilization.

I think that one of Paula McLain’s strengths is her depiction of remarkable women who have not received the attention they deserve. As I read, I chafed at the difficult lot of women in Beryl Markham’s time. In the 1930s, many women still survived by making a good marriage. In both The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun there is a distinct feminist subtext.

West With the Night book coverI’m now inclined to read Beryl’s memoir, West With the Night, which didn’t initially receive the acclaim that Dinesen’s memoir, Out of Africa, did, though it sold well when it was later republished. Some believe that Beryl’s third husband, a journalist, wrote the memoir, though I almost hesitate to write about what could be a sexist rumor. Maybe it doesn’t matter – Beryl Markham lived a remarkable life that many a man and woman envy. Ernest Hemingway had this to say about West With the Night:

“Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.”

In Circling the Sun, Beryl says this about her lover, Denys:

“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.”

This trailer of Out of Africa, although based on another book, captures something of the flavor of Circling the Sun:

The publisher kindly provided an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) of Circling the Sun.

Was Harper Lee ahead of her time?

Go Set a Watchman cover

As most of the world knows by now, Go Set a Watchman was an early draft of what went on to become To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee turned Watchman in to her publisher in 1957, and her editor encouraged her to write a very different story.

Lee’s initial draft was about a young women (based on Lee herself) living in New York City who visits her Alabama hometown and clashes with the racist views of her father, Atticus Finch, and her boyfriend, Henry, in the aftermath of the 1954 Supreme Court Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which declared unconstitutional state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students.

This story morphed into the iconic novel we all know and love, set in the 1930s when Harper Lee was a child and Atticus defended a falsely accused black man.

In my last post, I wrote about how Lee’s publisher has marketed Go Set a Watchman as a newly discovered novel, a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird. This has confused, upset, and disappointed devoted Harper Lee fans. Some people believe Lee has dementia and would not have wanted this second book published. Harper Lee has stated in the past that she’d said all she wanted to say with To Kill a Mockingbird and that she would not publish again.

Nonetheless, we now have Go Set a Watchman, and before I ever opened the book I decided to read it to the end because I was curious. As many have pointed out, usually a first draft of this nature is of interest only to literature scholars and writers seeking to learn from another writer’s process. Now the rest of us have the opportunity to read a young novelist’s first attempt and make of it what we will.

Some things have surprised me. First, while many readers have been disappointed (as a novel it doesn’t work for me, but I didn’t expect it to), other readers are enjoying Go Set a Watchman, happy to experience more work by a beloved author. For some, Watchman is simply a good story; for others, it’s fascinating to read an author’s first crack at writing a novel; and still others see this new vision of an imperfect Atticus living in an imperfect time as especially relevant, given the racial tumult playing out in America. They find Watchman’s Atticus a more authentic, believable character than the idealized hero portrayed in Mockingbird.

Much as I dislike the publisher’s tactics, I do think Go Set a Watchman is a valuable contribution to our conversation about race. In the end, I don’t think Harper Lee’s reputation will be damaged. Nothing can take away from the power of To Kill a Mockingbird. And those who are interested in the genesis of truly great literature can see, by comparing the two books, how far and difficult a road a writer must sometimes travel to craft a story that speaks to readers. It’s been said that at one point in writing To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee threw the manuscript out of her apartment window in despair.

There is something that I wonder about, though. Harper Lee initially tried to tell the story of a young person striking out on her own who can’t abide the attitudes and beliefs of those she loves in her hometown.  Isn’t this what many of us have experienced? At the time, Harper Lee’s editor may have persuaded her that American readers weren’t ready to grapple with the provocative views held by Atticus and Henry as Harper portrayed them. I think it is a shame that Harper Lee never had the opportunity to take her initial idea and give voice to that story as well, in a more fully formed and crafted novel than the current Watchman.

So much of Atticus, the fictionalized character, was based on Harper Lee’s true father. It takes a lot of courage to portray someone you love in a less than attractive light, and it takes a lot of skill. Contemporary writers of memoir and autobiographical novels do it all the time, but only a few succeed in doing it well. I’m sure Harper Lee had it in her to bring her original story to life, if she’d had the right editor and artistic support (clearly not those currently at the editorial helm of HarperCollins), but I’m not sure Harper Lee herself knew she had it in her.

Many have wondered why Harper Lee never published again. After the initial overwhelm of To Kill a Mockingbird’s publication, Harper Lee granted no interviews. Though she shared with friends a list of the additional books she wanted to write, she apparently never wrote them. She said herself that she couldn’t face the intense publicity again, and that she wouldn’t be able to top To Kill a Mockingbird, that the only place for her to go was down.

Who’s to say how Harper Lee really felt, but it may have been very frustrating for her if she was blocked in her writing after Mockingbird. Perhaps having her original story of a family portrayed in a less than flattering light rejected by her editor, and then being encouraged to craft a more idealized, palatable one, alienated Harper Lee from her own truth.

Writers of memoir and autobiographical novels often struggle with a sense of shame as they write the truth as they see it. Often they are criticized for being self-serving or narcissistic or for violating privacy. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club are two memoirs that come to mind which required brutal honesty and tremendous courage to write. Nowadays, there are coaches, instructors, and editors skilled at helping memoir writers, especially, write their own truth; this wasn’t so much the case when Harper Lee was writing.

In Go Set a Watchman I see the seeds of an equally valuable story that may have been ahead of its time.

Have you read Go Set a Watchman? What do you think? Should it have been published? Has it changed your views of Harper Lee? How do Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird compare, or are they incomparable?

Go Set a Watchman: What do publishers and book bloggers owe their readers?

Go Set a Watchman cover

“To those whose bubble was burst about Atticus, well, Santa Claus was really our parents, Bill Cosby wasn’t really Bill Cosby, and Bruce Jenner is now Caitlyn Jenner. Let’s get over it and get real about racism. How can we fix it otherwise?” Wally Lamb

“It’s being sent to us as a gift. It’s a blueprint to decode, something that we need to be better than we are.” Nikky Finney

I don’t have insider information about the controversy surrounding the publication of Harper Lee’s novel, Go Set a Watchman. I know only what I’ve learned from the articles and opinion pieces I’ve read since the book came out a few weeks ago.

I’ve chosen to trust Harper Lee’s biographer, Marja Mills, who doubts that Lee would have wanted Go Set a Watchman published if she were fully functioning. Harper Lee had a stroke a few years ago and currently resides in a nursing home, where a guard posted at the door maintains a list of people who are allowed to visit her. Some have questioned whether Harper Lee is capable of making informed publishing decisions, especially since she maintained for decades that no further books by her were forthcoming.

Go Set a Watchman was the initial draft of what would be transformed into To Kill a Mockingbird. It was problematic because it was a draft written by a novice writer learning her craft, though Harper Lee’s editor saw the talent and potential behind it. What’s more, the Atticus Finch portrayed in this first draft was not the iconic hero America went on to embrace. He was an Atticus Finch that perhaps American readers were not ready for. Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, mentored and guided Harper as she crafted quite a different story, the one that became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Fast forward many decades. After Harper Lee’s sister, Alice, died (Alice was a lawyer who looked after Harper’s estate and protected her interests), Harper’s new estate lawyer and the publisher HarperCollins spearheaded the publication of the initial manuscript, the one Harper Lee had originally called Go Set a Watchman.  

The manuscript was lightly copy edited, but no substantive editing was done. Any revisions, of course, would have required consultations with Harper Lee and perhaps some rewriting on her part, which many believe she cannot do since she is nearly deaf and blind and may be otherwise incapacitated.

HarperCollins has marketed the book as another, newly found novel by Harper Lee.

I’ll save my opinions about the literary quality and content of Watchman for my next post. Here, I want to say how disappointed I am in HarperCollins and the current big business model of book publishing. The publication of Go Set a Watchman has been called a money grab on the part of a publisher capitalizing on Harper Lee’s name and reputation. I agree with that assessment.

Back in the day, I started my career as a book editor in educational publishing, and I’ve been told by a friend who has remained in the business that I wouldn’t be happy if I’d stayed. Books must rake in the profits. Literary and other books with less popular appeal are often not supported or even published in the first place, regardless of their artistic merit. Fortunately, independent publishers, university presses, and self-published authors are filling the gap to some extent; many are committed to producing literary works of art regardless of their profit potential.

I believe, too, that the publication of this unedited first draft shows a profound disrespect for Harper Lee and puts her at risk of an undeserved tarnished reputation.

What if the unedited first drafts of F. Scott Fitzgerald or Ernest Hemingway or Margaret Atwood were published and marketed as new novels? Might our opinions of them as writers change?

Writers, sculptors, painters and other artists have a right to their first drafts, their initial conceptions, their trial and error efforts, and they have the right to keep this work to themselves or at least have it viewed in context.

I’ve been disappointed by a couple of bloggers and social media bibliophiles I’ve read, who seem to have no knowledge of the controversy and circumstances behind the publication of Go Set a Watchman, and little understanding of or interest in book editing, authorship, and responsible publishing. They are providing no context for their readers.

In one case, a book lover on Instagram with many followers heaped nothing but vitriol on Harper Lee. He claimed that she “knows nothing” about race – a serious misreading of her – and seemed to not take into account that Go Set a Watchman is a dated first draft written by a young writer in the 1950s. Many of this Instagram-er’s readers thanked him for steering them away from the book and seemed to take his indictment of Harper Lee at face value.

I unfollowed him.

Sometimes I’m ambivalent about being a book blogger, though most of the time I believe blogging is valuable. I was educated as a journalist, I was a book editor for a highly regarded book publisher that produced quality work, and I was paid for the editing and writing I did, with the expectation that I’d maintain the highest standards.

As bloggers, we can write whatever we want, with no one to fact check or edit our work. That’s the beauty of it – no gatekeepers, the opportunity to express ourselves, explore our passions, and share them with others. But there is a down side, too.

All of this said, I believe the publication of Go Set a Watchman will turn out to be a good thing, as you can likely tell from the opening quotes I’ve chosen. More about that in my next post.

Please share your thoughts about Go Set a Watchman. Should it have been published? And if you’ve read it, what do you think? If you find this post valuable, please share it so more readers can join in the discussion!

Here is a video of Ursula Le Guin talking about books as commodities. I’ve posted this before:

Read Go Set a Watchman with me

Go Set a Watchman coverBarnes & Noble in Rochester opens at 7 am tomorrow for the release of the story Harper Lee originally tried to tell. I expect, wherever you live, your local bookstore will have plenty of copies of Go Set a Watchman on hand.

Maybe we weren’t ready for the book in 1960.

Lee’s editor set aside Go Set a Watchman and worked with Harper for 2 years as she wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, the book we grew up with.

I’ll be talking about Go Set a Watchman here and on my FB fan page.  I would love for you to join in the discussion. But be prepared to be shocked by a very different Atticus Finch. If you like your memories about To Kill a Mockingbird just the way they are, then this book probably isn’t for you.

Please share this post with your friends so we can get a good discussion going on Books Can Save a Life.  I’ll be kicking off comments at the end of July, so go buy or borrow your copy of Go Set a Watchman now and get reading!

Bad Feminist? Good Feminist? Anti-Feminist?

Bad Feminist book cover“You think you are alone until you find books about girls like you. Salvation is certainly among the reasons I read. Reading and writing have always pulled me out of the darkest experiences in my life. Stories have given me a place in which to lose myself. They have allowed me to remember. They have allowed me to forget. They have allowed me to imagine different endings and better possible worlds.”  Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist

Where do I begin? It’s hard to know because Roxane Gay covers so much ground in her collection of essays, Bad Feminist. Her voice is unmistakable: hilarious, informed, opinionated, eloquent, vulnerable.

What a great read for a book club, especially if your club is diverse in terms of race, gender, political persuasion, and economic status. (Or are book clubs of such diversity scarce?) Oh, the discussions you’ll have.

Roxane Gay is a black woman, a feminist (a darn good one), a Ph.D and professor, a single woman of a certain weight, a liberal, a fan of reality TV and rap music, a best-selling novelist and author. She’s tired, because she does all these things – Roxane admits as much, but as one of those driven people she says she can’t stop.

She writes about all of this and more in her essays. Occasionally she leans toward the shrill, but mostly not – Roxane is very good at getting you to think while entertaining you at the same time. For certain, you won’t always agree with her, but you’ll have plenty to mull over.

Her writing is so, so timely in light of the discussions we’re having in this country about race. Roxane recounts movingly what it’s like to be the only female black professor in her academic department. She dissects her reactions to movies such as The Help and other depictions of race and racism in entertainment, discussions I found nuanced and enlightening, and sometimes difficult to take as I recognized myself in some of the attitudes she highlights.

I had chosen not to see The Help when it was released a few years ago, because I’d read an opinion piece by a black woman who said all the women in the movie who are racist are nasty, while all the women who are not racist are likable–when in fact it had been her experience that many people who were racist were the nicest people you’d ever meet.  Roxane highlights these and other kinds of stereotypical and overly-simplistic portrayals in a number of popular TV shows and movies.

As for feminism, Roxane writes honestly about personal trauma that in part has shaped her views. (I won’t go into that here, to avoid spoilers.) She addresses the sad state of affairs for women in the US, where women of reproductive age are finding it harder to obtain contraception, where politicians make outrageous statements about rape and other matters they don’t seem to understand. (Such as the infamous, women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant.)

Recently Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer took a lot of flak for criticizing feminism.  Yet look at what is happening in the tech world, with apparent widespread discrimination against women who are coming up in their careers. One would think things would be better for younger women but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

I have to admit that at one time I would not have considered myself a feminist, though not anymore, especially given that I’m startled by how much ground women have lost in this country. Being of a certain age, I’ve come to respect much more than I did what the first and second wave feminists accomplished for all of us. I’ve been concerned, too, when I’ve not heard more of an outcry from younger women over recent trends. So it’s a relief to read Roxane Gay’s take on all this.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from her essays:

“I embrace the label of bad feminist because I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example. I am not trying to be perfect. I am not trying to say I have all the answers. I am not trying to say I’m right. I am just trying—trying to support what I believe in, trying to do some good in this world, trying to make some noise with my writing while also being myself.”


“We don’t all have to believe in the same feminism. Feminism can be pluralistic so long as we respect the different feminisms we carry with us, so long as we give enough of a damn to try to minimize the fractures among us.”


“It’s hard not to feel humorless, as a woman and a feminist, to recognize misogyny in so many forms, some great and some small, and know you’re not imagining things. It’s hard to be told to lighten up because if you lighten up any more, you’re going to float the fuck away. The problem is not that one of these things is happening; it’s that they are all happening, concurrently and constantly.”

Did I say I think you should read Bad Feminist?

Have you read Bad Feminist? What did you think?

I’ve ordered a copy of Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change. It is available from Amazon and other booksellers, and you can download the pdf at this link: Laudato Si’ . I’ll be writing about it here in late July, mostly from a secular perspective. Why don’t you read it with me – I welcome your thoughts, faith-based or otherwise.


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