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Posts Tagged ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

I did a LOT of reading this month, even for me. In the midst of transition, change, chaos and HOT days, it’s nice to curl up with a book – or a dozen of them. Read on for my opinions on several new reads and a few beloved rereads:

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, Rhoda Janzen
Confession: I picked up this book for the cover (so clever and cute) and didn’t regret it. I actually read this in one night – it was both entertaining and compelling. Janzen goes back home to her Mennonite parents after a divorce and a car wreck, and compares her (much more secular) life with the peculiarities of her upbringing. She has a great sense of humor and does poke a lot of fun at her heritage, but she still loves her parents and respects their faith, and admits she doesn’t have all the answers for life, either. A fun read.

Small Wonder: Essays, Barbara Kingsolver
I loved Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (which is, as you may know, responsible for my current local-food kick and our CSA membership), so I was interested in this book of essays, written right after 9/11. Kingsolver touches on travel, politics, family life, food (of course) and even faith, in interesting ways. She occasionally veers toward the preachy, but mostly offers a new perspective on a world that, for her generation and mine, changed forever when those planes hit the towers.

The Mysterious Benedict Society, Trenton Lee Stewart
This was a brilliant read – so quick, clever and fun. A few gifted kids take on a madman and his plan to overthrow the world, with the help of a quirky old man and his cohorts. It does have echoes of Harry Potter, but there’s no “magic” here, just ingenuity and learning to work together (and Kate Wetherall’s bucket of useful tools). I read this in one day, too. Good fun for kids and adults alike.

A Lesson Before Dying, Ernest J. Gaines
This was my book-club selection for this month, and I have to say, I kept comparing it to To Kill a Mockingbird and finding it wanting. It’s a similar storyline – a black man unjustly accused of a crime in the South, in the 1940s – only this man is sentenced to death before the book opens. The narrator, Grant, is an unhappy teacher, and he tries to impart some dignity and wisdom to the sentenced man. The thing about this book is that it seemed so hopeless – none of the characters seemed happy or hopeful at all. Thought-provoking, but not a favorite.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
This month is the 50th anniversary of Mockingbird‘s publication, and I hadn’t read it since ninth grade, so I bought it to reread it. And oh my. It’s just as powerful, funny, heartbreaking and wonderful as ever. I do wish Harper Lee had written more books, but I’m eternally grateful that we have this story. Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill and Calpurnia stayed in my mind for days afterward. If you haven’t read it, go read it. Please. Right now.

New and Selected Poems, Mary Oliver
I’ve been working on this one for months. I think I should love Oliver’s poetry more than I generally do – but some of her poems, like “The Summer’s Day” (my favorite), are truly breathtaking. “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Ann Brashares
I blazed through this in one sitting – must be the third or fourth time I’ve read it. It’s a perfect summer book, and also perfect for reading in the midst of transition. The characters are wonderful and the writing is delicious. Love, love, love.

The Second Summer of the Sisterhood, Ann Brashares
I stayed up past midnight rereading this one – my copy is falling apart, but I don’t even care. (I bought it in Hawaii and have read it on the beach, on car trips and in several different houses.) I think this is my favorite of the series, mostly due to Bridget’s adventures in Alabama with her grandmother. It’s rich and full and big and satisfying, both funny and heartbreaking. Wonderful.

In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” I like Pollan’s slogan as a guideline to what and how to eat. Honestly, this book is complicated at first, and I’ve read enough food books and blogs to be a little bored by some of his arguments. I know industrial beef has all kinds of problems; I know to be wary of ingredients I can’t pronounce; I know Americans are chronic overeaters. But Pollan’s genius lies in his insistence that we’re all connected – that our health is inextricably tied to the health of the plants, animals, water, soil and world they come from. I finished the book with a new resolve to watch what I buy and cook. I’ll probably check out some of his other work.

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields
After rereading To Kill a Mockingbird, and hearing all the 50th-anniversary buzz, I wanted to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, so I borrowed this book from a friend. It’s a fascinating account of Lee’s childhood, young adulthood and early writing career. I loved finding out about her family, her college days, her relationship with Truman Capote and her time in New York. Lee refused to be interviewed by Shields, so instead he interviewed everyone he could find who knew her. It’s a thoughtful portrait, drawn by a loving hand.

Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli
This is a sweet story – about a girl who literally dances to her own music (made by her ukulele). It ends sadly, but hopefully – I think Stargirl Caraway will find her free-spiritedness again, and I hope Leo, the narrator, begins to love uniqueness rather than fear it.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag, Alan Bradley
This second Flavia de Luce mystery (sequel to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) made me laugh, shiver and shake my head at Flavia (top sleuth, age 11) and her exploits. She’s so clever, and scarily knowledgeable about poisons, but she’s not diabolical – just smart and a little neglected. Highly recommended if you like mysteries with a dash of fun, set in the English countryside.

Love, Stargirl, Jerry Spinelli
I loved this sequel to Stargirl, possibly more than Stargirl itself. Stargirl makes lots of new friends in a small Pennsylvania town, and learns a lot about herself while she’s at it. I love the quirky supporting cast of characters, and I love the way she loves people, even when they hurt her.

The Knitting Circle, Ann Hood
I read Hood’s memoir, about losing her daughter and learning to knit, a while back, and I knew this book had a similar plotline. There are some great characters and lovely descriptions of yarn, and a thoughtful portrait of the grieving process, written by someone who knows. But it felt a little lacking somehow, overall, though I did enjoy it.

I’m turning to comforting rereads during our transition – The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets and the Harry Potter series, among others. And of course we’re boxing up lots of books right now. But never fear, I’ll have some August reads for you soon. What have you been reading this summer?

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The literary world, at least in the US, has been all abuzz lately about the 50th anniversary of the publication of To Kill a Mockingbird. The official date was last Sunday, and I reread the book last weekend for the first time since ninth grade. I’m a fast reader, so it only took me a couple of days, but I’ve been thinking about it for a week.

I remembered the basic storyline: black man accused of raping a white girl, defended by a white lawyer in an Alabama town in the 1930s. And something about a creepy neighbor…? That was about as far as I got. I had forgotten all about most of the minor characters – Miss Maudie Atkinson (a neighbor and friend), Mr. Heck Tate (the sheriff), Miss Caroline (the bemused first-grade teacher), and Dill (the summertime friend). I’d forgotten how deeply Scout and Jem mused and thought about the world; how fiercely Atticus loved them and they loved him; I’d forgotten the pitch-perfect crafting of the last few chapters, when justice is finally served by the last person you’d ever think of.

There’s a good deal of debate about why Nelle Harper Lee never wrote another book. (She has lived quietly in Monroeville, Alabama, for many years now.) But I wonder if she simply said everything she needed to say with this one.

It’s a story about friendship – Scout, Jem and Dill; Scout, Jem and Calpurnia; the children and Miss Maudie Atkinson; even the children and Boo Radley. It’s a story about race relations, obviously, and the paramount importance of treating people like people, no matter who they are. It’s a story about family, and bravery, and childhood, and growing up.

I can’t hope to add anything new to the essays and blog posts and discussions and school essays, and the classic movie with Gregory Peck – everything that has swirled around the book for the last fifty years. But I love it. And I hope my children love it. (And I think you should read it, if you haven’t already.) And I hope my kids and my friends and I will remember, long after we’ve forgotten the finer points of the story, that “you never really understand a person until you climb into his skin and walk around in it,” and that because they do no one any harm and make music for us to enjoy, it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

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