Review of Harper Lee: To Kill a Mocking-Bird, p/b, London, Mandarin, 1992 (1960)
I must be one of the few readers of my age not to have read To Kill a Mocking-Bird before now. During my teaching years in the seventies and eighties it was set for Years 10, 11 English in just about every school going around but it never made any of my secondary school lists. It was also of course, made into a fine movie with Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch, the town’s lawyer, and I have never forgotten that image of the quietly calm Atticus sitting in his rocking chair on the verandah of their house and answering the most difficult questions with quiet detachment.
The novel’s story is told in the voice of Scout Finch (Jean Louise Finch) and her much loved older brother Jem. From the movie I have always imagined the story as a courthouse drama but soon realised realised it was more a coming of age story for Scout and Jem Finch who had lost their mother when Scout was just two years old. Set in a fictional Southern American town of Maycomb we read about their school and family life, the mysterious Boo Radley who never emerged from the house next door, their fussy Aunt Alexandra who came to live with them to teach them manners, and the rich and varied characters of Maycomb. Mocking birds were regarded as beautiful song birds, not to be killed by thoughtless shooters for fun.
The drama of the novel is certainly centred on the trial of a young negro boy named Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping the daughter of Mr Robert Ewell, a wasted and morally corrupt drunk and incestuous alcoholic whose children run wild and have to shift for themselves. The court room scene is high drama indeed and the subsequent impacts on the parties involved are brutal and horrific, in spite of a degree of redemption in the conclusion. In some ways the story could be that of a thousand stories in southern American black and white relations but in many other ways the story is much more. Here we see a young girl of a good family wrestling with growing up in America and trying to forge a way to live in such a divided and hypocritical society.
I am amazed that Harper Lee wrote no other novels for the rest of her life apart from one story which is really an earlier version of To Kill a Mocking Bird. The novel has humour, history, high tension and horror. It is easy to read and hard to put down. It is still relevant in the C21st. Five stars.
Review of Mark Haddon: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, p/b,London, Vintage, 2004
Children’s author Mark Haddon has written an outstanding narrative for children and adults about a fifteen year old high functioning Asperger’s Syndrome child named Christopher Boone. Christopher not only has to deal with his Asperger’s, he also has to deal with his separated parents, neither of whom can cope with the demands of his precisely self-ordered life. Christopher is highly intelligent, with an acute memory and with a vast array of knowledge about all sorts of scientific, geographic and literary information. Although he attends a special school Christopher has a fine mathematical ability enabling him to complete his A level mathematics tests (three of them) with Honours. For children with a mathematical bent, this story is also complete with a wide range of demanding mathematical puzzles and mathematical problems to be solved.
Haddon tells Christopher’s story from his own viewpoint so the reader gets an Asperger’s view of growing up in a world in which he sees things quite differently from other children of his age. His adventures with adults both helpful and unhelpful and his determination to sort out his life for himself along with his pet rat Toby, make for exciting and at times very funny reading as well as some very sad experiences. Haddon is a multi-talented artist as well as a writer and has himself worked with Asperger’s Syndrome children and adults. He describes himself as a hard-edged atheist and there is certainly a strong rejection of any suggestion of the existence of God in this narrative. 5 stars.
Review of Josephus: The Life of Flavius Josephus, 93 C.E., (Greek), Trans. William Whiston, h/b, USA, Hendrickson, 1987 (1736)
Josephus’ brief account (36 pages) of his life begins with his family history including his priestly father Matthias and his brother, also called Matthias. He was well educated and notes his early interest in Jewish history and philosophy and especially his early interest in the major Jewish sects including the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes as well as his following for a time of a solitary prophet Banus. Josephus finally joined the Pharisees.
At age 26 he made a fateful journey to Rome which included a shipwreck in which many died but some including Josephus were able to swim to another ship and were saved. Josephus’ purpose in going to Rome was to defend some of his fellow priests who had been sent to Rome for trial. Through a friendship with a Roman actor Aliturius who was a friend of the Emperor Nero, Josephus also became known to Poppea, the second wife of the Emperor Nero and through her entreaties was able to gain the release of his priestly friends.
Josephus returned to Israel profoundly impressed by the power of the Roman Empire and came home strongly opposed to the Jewish revolt. On his return however he was unable to restrain Jewish rebellion and assumed a command in Galilee where he fortified a number of cities against future Roman attack. At the same time he was opposed by one John of Gischala who hated and distrusted him. The rest of this “life” relates his rise to power in Galilee and his internal ‘war’ with John of Gischala and his mercenaries in Tiberias who were determined to destroy him.
Josephus survived both his problems with John of Gischala and also the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews ( a story he tells elsewhere in The Wars of the Jews.)He concludes
his narrative with a brief account of his post war life which remarkably included becoming a Roman citizen, the gift of an apartment in the Emperor Vespasian’s house, and a pension for life! (which he spent writing his Antiquities of the Jews and The Wars of the Jews as well as other works. ) He divorced his first wife who had born him three sons and remarried a highly regarded Cretan Jewess who gave him another two sons. After the death of Vespasian Josephus continued to to receive support from both the Emperor Titus and later the Emperor Domitian in spite of ccusations from Jewish survivors that he was of ill repute. It is fair to say that Josephus’ contribution to our understanding of the social, political and religious background of the New Testament era cannot be over emphasized. Although he is not completely unbiased, he remains a remarkable and reliable historian. 4 stars
Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms, p/b, London, Vintage Books, 2005 (1929):
Hemingway’s early semi-autobiographical novel covering his brutal experiences as an ambulance driver in Italy during World War 1 is a demanding and powerful read. There is somehow always a hovering sense of tragedy throughout and not far away in this novel. I first read this story when I was quite young and found Hemingway’s style somehow rushed and clipped. It was nowhere near my top ten list. Reading it today in one hit after fifty years, I found the novel had a driving power to hold my interest and impossible to put down, especially as I could not recall the ending from my first reading.
Hemingway achieves a powerful account of the folly and cruelty of war at the same time as a tender and entrancing love story. Hemingway manages the stoic and hopeless courage of soldiers, the agony of cold, wet and wintery conditions and the grim camaraderie of soldiers who had lost comrades and knew their own time could come anytime, any where. At the same time he manages to detail the softest and most loving relationship between Henry and Catherine that stays in the mind long after the novel has finished.
This is no swash-buckling hero story but real time war-time life with its horror and futility and its grasping for love under extreme circumstances. 5 stars.