Wednesday, 28 September 2011

So it goes

This is another book I plucked from my parent's bookshelves, a somewhat battered 1970's copy with very yellow pages: Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut.
I am not so sure that this is really a novel. I think it is really a thinly veiled excuse to write about his war experience, since it recounts in some detail his witnessing of the destruction of Dresden in February 1945. When you experience something so overwhelming it is almost impossible to make sense of it. One little quote kind of summed it up, in discussing the works of Kilgore Trout and why they were helpful to war veterans: "So they were trying to re-invent themselves and their universe. Science fiction was a big help."

A young lad called Billy Pilgrim (an allegorical name if I ever heard one) time travels within his own life, experiencing it all in a strange order, and also travels in space as he is kidnapped by aliens called Tralfamadorians and taken to their planet to be exhibited in the zoo. The Tralfamadorians insist that there is no such thing as time or death, that all moments exist all the time, which is how Billy can travel to other points in his life, and that all events are inevitable. This is a very thin book, because not very much happens in Billy's life, except for the war and the alien kidnap thing:

"There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters." (p.110)

As I say, it's not so much a novel as a philosophical treatise about the absurdity of life. He experiences this most terrible of events, in the firebombing of Dresden, and yet after that life must go on. Although we are seeing it all backwards (because the whole book leads up to their imprisonment in Slaughterhouse 5, the firebombing and the execution of Edgar Derby) you do feel that the experience changed him. When he first arrives in the war he is resigned to his fate and wants to be left to die rather than struggle for survival, but afterwards, though he learns of the inevitability from the Tralfamadorians he somehow makes more sense out of life. What it reminded me of most was Voltaire's Candide, which is a satire that mocks certain philosophical beliefs. Slaughterhouse 5 is punctuated by the phrase 'So it goes' (to confirm both mundane events and horrific ones) which seemed to me to mirror Dr Pangloss in Candide, who says repeatedly that they live 'in the best of all possible worlds'. They both seem to say, 'this is the way things are, they just are and you can't do anything about it'. It appears somewhat fatalistic but Billy becomes the antithesis of the naively optimistic Candide, accepting events through his ability to revisit them in the past, but not placing a moral value on the events. He gives toward the end the oft quoted aphorism 'God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom always to tell the difference', which, though a little trite, kind of sums things up.

This is my favourite passage from the book. Life is absurd when you view it forwards. However it makes much more sense in reverse:

"American planes full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for the wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and the planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialist in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anyone ever again." (p.54)

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
I have been listening to this on audiobook over the weekend while knitting and thinking that it is one of the pleasures of book blog browsing to occasionally come across such a gem. I don't recall where it was, but thank you so much to whoever reviewed this.

Ptolemy is an old man, living out his years replaying some memories and avoiding others, housebound, not by incapacity but by a creeping dementia that means he does not know where to go or how to get back if he ever got there. He relies on his grandnephew, who's failure to appear one day leads him into new contact with his large extended family and with the wider world. A young girl called Robyn becomes his caretaker and instead of just walking him to the store and back she takes his life in hand and shakes it up in ways he could not have anticipated.

What is so wonderful about the book is the portrait of Ptolemy, so vivid are the descriptions of his thoughts that you feel like you understand the debilitating nature of old age decline. He goes to say things and then forgets, he knows that he does not know, that he has forgotten, but is haunted by memories that he cannot escape. He has this sense that there are important things he needs to do before he dies but he is crippled by his own weaknesses and failings. You get a real sense of his intense vulnerability, how he knows he cannot protect himself, how reliant he is on others, but there are still flashes of a more shrewd person, a proud one, one who is trying so determinedly not to give in to it all.

I really liked too the relationship between Ptolemy and Robyn, a loving and genuinely affectionate one but also a slightly ambiguous one, since he is too aged to feel real desire but still has the ability to admire her as a beautiful woman. Also his friendship with a old lady called Mrs Wring, who he encounters on a trip to the bank when she asks him to loan her some money and offers a precious ring as security. It is this event that sparks for him the memory of the treasure and how he should make amends for past wrongs.

As a young boy Ptolemy lost his best friend in a house fire and then witnessed the lynching of his beloved great uncle, events which marked him and which now have come to dominate his thinking, his need to make amends and to provide protection for his family for the future. The lasting image of his long dead wife is his other ghost, one which he has avoided by closing up their bedroom and sleeping amongst the junk on a mattress under the table. When it emerges that his grandnephew has been killed in a drive-by shooting Ptolemy determines to provide for his wife and two children using a 'treasure' stolen by his great uncle. In a scene that reminded me of the film 'Awakenings' he chooses to take some experimental medicine to restore his brain function. Although still relying on Robyn to care for him he takes steps to secure the treasure and make a will, and then in a very powerful scene confronts the person he knows is responsible for his grandnephew's death.

This book made me think of 'Small Island' by Andrea Levy that I read some years ago, a novel about the life of immigrants into the UK from the Caribbean during the 1950's. It is difficult to write about books that tell about black people's experience and not feel like you are coming across as patronising, but both this and Small Island I felt gave me some small insight into a life experience that is so foreign to my own. For Ptolemy the world is not to be trusted, and no just because he is loosing his marbles, but because he is black. He does not expect the world to work in his favour, he expects to have to fight for things. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey was poignant and heartbreaking and yet never sentimental, and from a writer who's output seems to be mostly detective mysteries it was most unexpected.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Zen and all that

More than anything else I have come to the conclusion that Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is a warning to not think too hard about the meaning of life, since it appears to be the cause of the total disintegration of the narrator's personality. I started this book some nine years ago when I first moved in with Dunk and I restarted it at page 130 where the bookmark was, though I have no idea if that was actually where I read to. I remember there being an awful lot of stuff about motorbikes and that was probably why I abandoned it, however as it progressed there was less bike and much more philosophy, and I rather wished it would go back to the bikes. The unnamed narrator is telling us the story of Phaedrus, who is his alter-ego, the name he gives to his former self (that took me a while to figure out), a teacher of creative writing, and of how his search to understand the abstract idea of 'Quality' leads him to madness. I found much sympathy with his original struggle:

"Hundreds of itsy-bitsy rules for itsy-bitsy people. No one could remember all that stuff and concentrate on what he was trying to write about. It was all table manners, not derived from any sense of kindness or decency or humanity, but originally from an egotistic desire to look like gentlemen and ladies ....
It wasn't until three o'clock in the morning that he wearily confessed to himself that he didn't have a clue as to what 'Quality' was, picked up his briefcase and headed home." (p.177)

and his astute assessment of what was wrong with the education system:

"Schools teach you to imitate. If you don't imitate what the teacher wants you get a bad grade. Here, in college, it was more sophisticated of course, you were supposed to imitate the teacher in such a way as to convince the teacher you were not imitating, but taking the essence of the instruction and going ahead with it on your own. That got you A's. Originality on the other hand could get you anything - from A to F. The whole grading system cautioned against it." (p.187)

but I found that as it went on he dove into the depths of Rhetoric and Dialectic, Aristotle, Plato and Sophistry and I think it assumed too much prior knowledge of Ancient Greek philosophical ideas so that I was a little out of my depth. The zen stuff is kind of in the background of the ongoing story of his motorbike journey with his son:

"Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion. Then, when you're no longer thinking ahead, each footstep isn't just a means to an end but a unique event in itself." (p.198)

"Weeds and grass and wild flowers grow where the concrete has cracked and broken. Neat, squared, upright lines acquire a random sag. The uniform masses of the unbroken colour of fresh paint modify to a mottled, weathered softness. Nature has a non-Euclidian geometry of her own that seems to soften the deliberate objectivity of the buildings with a kind of random spontaneity that architects would do well to study." (p.281)

"While we wait for chocolates malteds I notice a high-schooler sitting at the counter exchanging looks with the girl next to him. She's gorgeous, and I'm not the only other one who notices it. The girl behind the counter waiting on them is also watching with an anger she thinks no one else sees. Some kind of triangle. We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people's lives. (p.282)

As the book progresses he talks more and more philosophy and their travels are relegated to mere moments interspersed within the story of Phaedrus, recounting in detail his attendance at a philosophy course. The trouble is that his recounting of these events inside his head as he drives the motorbike is causing him to relive the same reactions to what he learned and what he thought, and is taking him back into the breakdown that he suffered. Sometimes he pauses in his recounting only for a sentence or two, to tell us they stopped to eat something, and then goes right back to the intellectualising. But these moments were the ones that seemed more significant to me and were what I focussed on. The journey seems to have become an end in itself and tension grows between the pair, the father so wrapped up in his thoughts and the son becoming a truculent teenager:

"Farther on at Leggett we see a tourist duck pond and we buy Cracker Jacks and throw them to the ducks and he does this in the most unhappy way I have ever seen." (p.394)

Even brief they are enough to give the reader quite an intimate picture of the relationship between father and son. The son's growing reaction to the aimless and purposeless travelling, and his need to understand what really happened to his father, sees the situation come to a crisis point and ends with them having fogbound confrontation.

The book almost seems to be cautioning against viewing classic philosophy with too much reverence, that even people like Aristotle and Plato need to have their ideas scrutinised and criticised. Read more carefully than I have done I am sure it would be an education in itself. He is very critical of the higher education system and the nature of teaching and schooling in general, about how it discourages real creativity and originality. I don't think this book has changed the way I think about my life but it has a lot of interesting things to say about life in general, philosophy and human nature ... and zen and motorbikes as well. Still worth reading after all this time.

Thursday, 15 September 2011


Or sock knitting with the Nac Mac Feegles. Creature and I sat on Tuesday afternoon and listened to 'Wee Free Men' by Terry Pratchett on audiobook.
We have 'A Hat Full of Sky' on tape which follows on from this one, but this is the first book that introduces us to the Nac Mac Feegle, who are a kind of Glaswegian pictsie, who mainly like fighting and drinking and have blue skin and red hair. What I just love about Terry Pratchett is that he always makes me laugh out loud, because he is so clever and subverts everything that other writers do. He takes commonly used phrases and turns them on their head, undermining the meaning and poking fun at the assumptions. He does have themes to the books, choosing an 'institution' from the real world and parodying it within the setting of the Discworld, like 'Going Postal' which takes on Royal Mail and has a magic sorting machine that spews out every letter that could ever have been written. Even when you become familiar with his style he still manages to surprise, and it becomes this familiarity that makes the books so enjoyable, with characters who you get to know turning up across the books.

Am doing a couple of pairs of bed socks for relatives across the pond. Dad is popping over to visit with his extended family (there are eight of them and five live in the US). This lovely yellow is for Auntie Iris. I think she's the eldest, and went to America after the war (that's World War Two). (The baby of the family, Uncle Doug, recently celebrated his 70th, I love knowing I have such a long lived family, it bodes well for old age.) The yarn is lambswool and silk and came from Kingcraig Fabrics.
The second pair in progress are for Uncle Dennis. He's like this version of my dad with an american accent, they are close in age and grew up together. The internet has been a huge boon for them as they now chat together on Skype all the time. Dad is flying next week so I have to get a move on, but both pairs are thick and chunky and done with double yarn so I should be finished by tomorrow.

Beth's famous honey oaty cookies

Creature came back from one of her sojourns in Malvern with the most wonderful of cookies recipes from her friend Beth, so here are the instructions just for you. Be warned, they are very addictive.

Honey Oaty Cookies:
2oz margarine (or butter, but they really don't need it)
3oz sugar (white, if you use soft brown it has a whole other flavour and would drown out the honey)
Cream together.
2oz plain flour (these are made with white but wholemeal could work too)
2oz oats (porridge rather than coarse)
1 level teaspoon baking powder (do not use SR flour)
1 tablespoon runny honey (I buy cheap stuff just for cookies, don't waste you Manuka on these)
Mix thoroughly and get a mixture that looks like this:
Beth's recipe said 1-2 spoons of honey but I found if you use too much they are sticky in the middle. If you like sticky by all means use more honey.
Grease a couple of baking trays with oil and make small balls of mixture, the usual term is 'walnut sized', well spread out and flatten slightly.
Bake in a moderate oven, 170/180 degrees or gas mark 4 for 10 minutes. Use you judgement as to the level of goldenness, cooking is an art not a science, but do not overcook, they will still be soft when you taken them out. Leave on the tray to cool for a minute or two before taking off so that they crisp up slightly. When I sent the recipe to my sister I ended it saying "eat while still warm and make another batch", which is sensible advice since they are best still warm. They will keep in a box reasonably well but why would you want to. It's best to double or triple the recipe if you have friends coming round.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

This book with change the way you think and feel about your life

So in preparation for NaNoWriMo I have been doing some exercises from the book 'A Novel in a Year' by Louise Doughty. Now, allowing someone to read something I have written is going to be one of the biggest stumbling blocks to writing a book, so in the spirit of not thinking everything I write is utter tosh I will post some of it here. This is exercise number 8 and the remit is to write a paragraph from the point of view of an inanimate object. She uses the example of 'Skepticism Inc.' by Bo Fowler, which is an entire book written from the point of view of a shopping trolley (which I am now going to have to add to the TBR list as it sounds excellent). Anyhow, this is what I wrote:

I am going to change your life. At least that's what it says on my cover. It's a bloody grand claim if you ask me. I mean, I'm only wood pulp and a bit of glue when it comes down to it, oh, yes, and the ink I suppose, that's the slightly more important bit. Right now I could do with something that could change my life. I am in a bit of a sorry state. My spine is very dried out and my cover is peeling at the edges, I was only a cheap mass produced thing (don't forget the grand claim, they were anticipating a high demand for copies and wanted to maximise their profits). My pages are worryingly loose in some places and going decidedly yellow. A while ago I did spend some time on the bedside table but since then it's been many years on the shelf, gathering dust. I suppose I should be grateful, the things you hear about, the terrible places some of us end up. Even a box in the attic seems bearable compared to the recycle bin, or worse still … the incinerator. We would try not to scare the new ones, especially those that say things like 'Jeffery Archer' on the front, so it is only mentioned in a whisper, but we all know the rumours, the fate awaiting those who fail to live up to their promise. Even having 'international bestseller' is no guarantee these days, though you are slightly more secure if you win something. I have sometimes wished to be a Mills and Boon, they just go round and round the charity shops, lots of owners, lots of new sights and plenty of interaction with the readers. The covers are a bit naff, all those swooning women in flimsy blouses, I rather like mine (it has a lotus flower morphing into a wrench), so it's a trade off really; quality content and cover make up for the lack of attention. When it comes down to it I would rather be read just once and have a real impact than have a hundred readers but be instantly forgotten. I am the kind of book that people have heard of, my reputation precedes me. At the time of my publication I was the biggest thing around, my back-cover-reviews say things like, 'original', 'explosive' and 'unforgettable', those where heady days. It's been quiet in recent years though so you can imagine my delight when I found myself picked out and put in a small pile by the bed. I am in good company here, Sylvia Plath for goodness sake, I mean I'd never even heard of the one I was next to on the shelf. I'm trying not to get too excited, I don't know if my message still has the appeal, times change, but you never know. Life is definitely looking up.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Trusty staple gun strikes again

I so hate living with other people's curtains, one of the downsides of rented housing. They are invariably old and nasty. The ones in our current living room were quite nice really, just cream patterned, and lined, so not that cheap when they were new. However the curtain rail had been the cause of some problems and, having come loose twice already, was wedged in place in a hole in the plasterwork at the corner of the bay window. When Tish was round for a visit the other day she went to close them and the whole thing came down. So today I decided to return to my favoured method of curtain fixing ... the staple gun. This is a great tip for people not keen on the whole palaver of having to buy rails to fit, and drill stuff and most of the time the plaster is all crumbly and you end up having to buy huge quantities of filler and kind of cement the whole thing in place. Just too much bother. So here they are. I then took the hooks that were in the wall on either side of the bay and screwed them into the window frame so I can tuck the curtains up during the day. It has the nice side effect that we are no longer overlooked by the neighbours when they come out to use the bin (which they seem to do on inordinately frequent occasions).
These 'curtains' were bought as sofa throws from Shared Earth many many years ago. One had been cut up and made into a cover for a futon, and then sewed back together into one piece when I used them as curtains in my house in Cecil Street. You can see the original colour on the left hand edge there (that's the bit that was cut off and so is not faded). I have always loved them because they were some of the very few non-functional items I ever bought for my home at a time when we were very hard up.

And I have also been doing cosmetic preparations for NaNoWriMo. This is my desk. It used to be Dunk's desk but the 'study' is too tiny for it so he has a table and lots of stuff in boxes instead. I cleaned it up the other week (it had become a bit of a dumping ground for washing and crafty stuff) and put up this hanging (also with the staple gun:-) that the girls bought for me (you might recognise it from the home made christmas tree post). I am sitting here now writing this, just to see what it feels like to write at a desk, and if the chair is ok, and if the light is good. It looks all very bare at the moment. I am thinking that, as I did with the christmas tree, I can pin things to the hanging like a notice board, maybe pictures or inspirational quotations to encourage me, stuff like that.

Work Whinge of the Week: the Biggie!

It's been an ordinary kind of week but the last two days tipped the balance and reminded me of the good reason for an indoor job. Friday I had a less than fun encounter with one of these (you know, the kind that tear small children to pieces):
that emerged from an open front door as I approached. Now as a child I was frightened of dogs; we lived across the road from a council estate where they ran around loose in gangs (something that thankfully no longer occurs), and it has taken me a long time to grow out of it. Over the years as a postie you develop certain techniques. At houses where you know there might be a dog you rattle the gate, so if it is around it comes running (rather than catching you unawares) and you put the post in the gate. I have always been very strict about not putting myself at risk and will only enter a garden where I am comfortable with the animal, I am happy to just walk away with post for a house where a dog is running free unattended. I have gradually trained myself not to run away when I see a dog coming but to stand still, and then back myself against a fence or wall so I can defend myself (usually with whatever mail is on my hand!). I had a nasty one just a few weeks ago when a dog escaped from a house and had me pinned against the fence snapping and barking for some minutes before the owner responded to my shouts. So after Friday's experience I was suspicious of all open front doors and Saturday I approched one house very quietly, placed the letter down gently and walked back to the gate, which unfortunately banged, and did not catch shut, causing the nasty little mutt inside to be able to pursue me onto the street and again harangue me for several minutes while the ineffectual owner tried to get it to come back in, or even stand still and be caught.

Fortunately none of these encounters resulted in injury. I have been bitten three times in the nearly nine years as a postie, though very minor compared to Mike, who was left badly scarred on his leg after a run in with a stray, Rick, who was scarred on his arm (and who accepted a bottle of whiskey by way of apology), and Glen, who nearly lost the end of his finger being bitten *through* a letterbox. All three times were bites to the back of my calf, twice being just brief little nips that bruised, the third was a much worse meeting with a Border Collie. I had seen the dog at this farm before and it had gone for me, so that day I got out of the van cautiously but the yard was completely deserted. I set off across the yard from the cottage to the main house and was abruptly brought to my knees by this pain. By the time I had turned around (this was how fast it happened) the dog was already disappearing around the wall at the end of the barn. I found one of the stable girls and asked her who's dog it was. I hobbled round for the rest of the day, and had a scar on my calf that took a year to fade away. The only consequence is that the owner gets a letter from Royal Mail asking them to keep their dog under proper control. In no way do I think that dogs should routinely be put down for such behaviour, but if a human being injured me in the same way they could be charged with assault. I think neglectful dog owners should, at the very least, receive a police warning after any such incident. I remember meeting a woman in the local MIU who had been badly bitten and I asked her if she would report it to the police because it is important to record dog bites, so that if/when it happens again the owner cannot claim that the dog has never done it before.

While I'm on the subject ... shut the bloody thing in the kitchen before you open the door won't you, rather than trying to block the gap with your body as the blood crazed creature tries to push past and get at me ... it makes me nervous.

Friday, 2 September 2011

To kill a mockingbird

I found this copy of To Kill a Mockingbird on my mum's shelf and picked it up thinking that if I had it right there I would get around to reading it. I have been doing a bit of preparation for NaNoWriMo, some writing exercises, and thinking of doing some more focussed reading of modern classics rather than drifting haphazardly through the pile of waiting books (cue excuse to go off and trawl the internet for lists of modern classics). I have a copy of The Bell Jar that I bought recently and from the bookshelves downstairs I have selected; The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (read in my 20's), Howard's End (love the film and have old tatty copy from charity shop), Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut and Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, that is almost the only novel Dunk owns and that I started reading in the spirit of 'bonding a new relationship' when we were first living together, the bookmark is still at page 130. It seems like a nice varied collection.

Right, back to the book in hand. I had the vaguest of notions about the story of To Kill a Mockingbird, not having even seen the film, and so anticipating mostly racial tension and dramatic courtroom stuff. The charm of this book (not sure if 'charm' is an appropriate word here) is that it is such a small book that says such big things. It is such an enjoyable straightforward narrative; I feel like I have read so many books with plot lines that jump backwards and forwards, or tell things in a confusing order, or from multiple points of view, it was nice to find one that just gets on and tells the story. The book is narrated by Scout, looking back from adulthood, and follows a period of three years during which she and her brother Jem find their idyllic childhood disrupted by a crime and court case, and it's consequences, that divides their community and bring them into close contact with the adult world. Their twosome becomes a threesome when they are joined for the summer by Dill, the nephew of a neighbour. Their playground extends as far as being within calling distance of their housekeeper Calpernia and not having a mother to fuss over them they pretty much please themselves. Life is marred only by the presence of their mysterious and disagreeable neighbours the Radleys. Over time fear of them turns to curiosity but much bigger things are in store for their family. The character of their father Atticus Finch has become a byword in integrity and morality (both in the book and by readers in general), and he is appointed to defend a black man who has been accused of raping a white woman. Though the book is set in the 1930's it is in reality addressing the issues of segregation and racism that were being confronted by the civil rights movement during the period it was written in the 1950's. The thing that really strikes about the novel is how separate the lives of black and white people are, and even though all the 'genteel' households have black servants there is a real barrier between them. And the fact that on both sides people seem very accepting of the situation, as if it is normal and natural, and while Atticus tries desperately to offer some reassurance to Tom Robinson (the accused man) they both know that in reality there is no possibility of justice. I'm not sure if it was supposed to be funny but I found myself laughing at the nighttime scene where Atticus is sitting alone outside the jail. He is sure an attempt will be made to lynch Tom and so takes it on himself to act as guard, and the men arrive, and there is this terrible atmosphere of fear and menace, and then the children barge in to the situation and Scout chatters away to one of the men she recognises, utterly unaware of what was happening, and inadvertently diffuses the threat.
And in amongst all the politics it is the story of a little girl trying to make sense of the world. Scout is such a lovely character, loyal and affectionate, but also thoughtful and intelligent. The moments that stuck out for me were her first day at school, I really can't believe I hadn't heard this quoted somewhere as it is the most wonderful lambasting of the school system; Miss Caroline is annoyed to find that Scout can already read:

"Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I'll take over from here and try and undo the damage" (p.23)

and Scout's reflection on school:

"as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I could not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me." (p.38)

Scout is taken in hand by the arrival of her aunt Alexandra who disapproves of her running wild and her closeness to her brother and tries to bring a more feminine influence over her:

"Who was the 'her' they were talking about? My heart sank: me. I felt the starched walls of a pink cotton penitentiary closing in on me, and for the second time in my life I thought of running away. Immediately." (p.140)

The book is criticised on many fronts, for having weak, stereotypical black characters or for having an overly romanticised view of southern society, but I am not sure these things detract from what it says. She shows us this ordinary town, populated mostly by 'good' people, the judge, the sherrif, Miss Maudie, Miss Rachel, even Mrs Dubose turns out to be of solid stuff, and then she shows us that this same society hands out justice based on race, that a man will be convicted not because he is guilty but because he is black. She shows this, and she shows us in no uncertain terms that this is wrong. The lesson that Atticus repeatedly teaches his children is not to judge another person without putting yourself in their shoes. I loved the scene at the end where Scout stands on the Radley porch and tries to see the world as Boo Radley saw it. The idea that you need to step outside your own cosy world and into another unfamiliar one in order to understand what needs to be changed is no less true now. I could talk about this book all night, or I could shut up. It is a hard book to write about because you don't want to end up spouting platitudes or even imply that the world, or specifically the justice system, is any better or less prejudiced now than it was then. Just read it.


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