Saturday, February 20, 2016

Goodbye Harper Lee

2016 seems fraught with celebrity deaths. This was followed earlier with the news that Harper Lee had passed away at the age of 89. She lived to a good age, nevertheless, the news was sad.

Personally, To Kill a Mockingbird was one of the few books that I would claim truly helped defined my life. I read it was I was a teenager, when it was assigned to us - not part of the curriculum, but extra reading to help encourage and improve our reading habit. I was one of the few amongst my friends who finished the book, and loved it - and went on to tell everyone who had not read it the synopsis. The book resonated with my sense of what's important in life, back when I was just a teenager, and even now: kindness, courage, justice and most of all - doing the right thing even if everything and everyone seems to be against you. Who can forget this quote from Atticus Finch to his children:

"I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It's when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what

I did not pick up the supposed sequel - partly because of the controversy that it might not have been the author's wish to publish the book in the first place. There were also people who read it and claimed it was somewhat disappointing; I decided I wasn't going to ruin my memory of the original by reading the Go Set a Watchman. Sometimes, we need to know when to step back and walk away.

Someone once said to me that she wasn't a great writer because she only wrote one book in her entire life. I replied, "But most writers never managed to write one great book; she wrote only one, but it was so great."

Charles J. Shields, who wrote the biography on Harper Lee, Mockingbird, said this of Lee: "She just wanted to be comfortable in her own skin". As a tom-boy growing up, I understood this desire to just be left alone to be my own person, to be comfortable in my own skin. It was one of those revelations that warmed me to the author beyond the book.

Rest in Peace, Miss Lee, and thank you for that one great book.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

BOOKS | Girl Waits with Gun

Some books, while good, have demands slow reading because they are so dense. Then there are the other types of books that are fun to read, and the writer knows how to pace the narrative so that there's a momentum that keeps you turning the pages - and before you know it, you're done and asking for more.

I was so glad to pick up Amy Stewart's Girl Waits with Gun. Amy Stewart took the characters of Constance Kopp and her sisters straight out of the newspapers from 1914-1915, and created this funny, historical pastiche of one of the early female Deputy Sheriff in the United States of America. All three Kopp sisters are funny caricatures, and their dynamics was the main part of the entertainment.

The story began when the Kopp sisters' trolley was knocked over by an automobile, owned by a rich man, Henry Kaufman, with shady connections. The Kopp sisters asked for compensation, and what followed was a series of events set out to intimidate them - bricks thrown through their windows, their house was also set on fire, and letters threatening to sell the youngest sister into white slavery. What I love about the story is how the sisters, while under considerable duress, never gave in to become the victims. We need more books abut women standing up for themselves, and looking out for each other.

This, and catching Deadpool at the cinema was a good conclusion to a Sunday.

I have my eyes out for Amy Stewart's other books. There's supposed to be a second Kopp Sisters titles out later this year in September. I hope it's as good, or even better than this one. Meanwhile, I am curious about The Drunken Botanist. How can I not be curious about a book about the plants behind our alcoholic beverages?

Monday, February 08, 2016

BOOKS | H is for Hawk

I've just finished reading Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk. My reading journal tells me that I started the book May of last year, and I finished it in February of this year. It took me a while, through no fault of the book itself. Life, and my short attention span made it so.

The book isn't always an easy read - partly because it's a few narrative threads running through, and because it is essentially a book on grief, on memories. Helen Macdonald tells of her experience trying to raise a hunting goshawk, even as she narrates the story of author T.H. White's (the author of The Once and Future King, the re-telling of the young Arthur's training under Merlyn) own neurotic attempt to raise a goshawk. For T.H. White, the desire to raise a goshawk comes from some self-seated self-loathing and anxieties over his own repressed homosexuality, for Helen Macdonald, it came soon after the death of her beloved father.

The two narratives run side by side in a somewhat lopsided fashion. T.H. White's narrative makes him seem like an odd, silly little man, throwing himself towards danger his entire life to prove his own masculinity to himself. That is sad, really, because he never could master the goshawk, and in the end lost it, by sheer negligence. Meanwhile, Helen Macdonald's grief was palpable through out the book, and her goshawk feels feral, alien and emotionally unavailable (I can't believe I am using this term for a bird of prey). The human trying to master the goshawk, and both learning that they would never quite tame the creature that is violence and murder, and both wondering if perhaps there is something within themselves that has been found wanting by their goshawk.

In the end, grief resolves itself. Nothing changed. Macdonald's hands are full of scars from the goshawk, and then there are the other scars, unseen. Yet time does heal, and she moved on, as she ends the book with her passing the goshawk to a friend for a few month; the goshawk would be moulting soon, and the next time she sees the goshawk, it shall be with a new set of feathers, and she will be different. Perhaps, that is Macdonald's own process of moulting, of shedding old grief, and growing new ones.

PS: Mid-way through the book last night, I came across a mention of Olivia Laing's The Trip to Echo Spring in H is for Hawk. It was an odd sort of synchronicity, because I had just picked up Olivia Laing's To the River earlier from the library. Soon after I finished H is for Hawk, I picked up and read To the River, and there in the page listing the Illustrations, was this credit: Map of the River Ouse, by Helen Macdonald.

Sometimes, it seems like my books are talking to one another, and they lead us to their friends by whispering to us through the pages.