March 2010 archive

#11: To Kill A Mockingbird (Reread)

#11: To Kill A Mockingbird (Reread)

I’ve been sick for four days now. Actually, longer, with something else; as that something else went away, a cold descended, and I’ve spent the last four days lying in bed and on my couch, going through whole boxes of tissues, drinking a ridiculous amount of tea. Blehhhh.

I’d like to say the upside was that I got some reading done while I was home sick! But I didn’t. It was the kind of sick where just breathing makes you tired, and so doing anything that requires thought is pretty much out of the question. So no reading, and basically no writing, including this blog entry for a book I finished early last week: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper LeeI’ve read TKAM before, in my ninth grade English class, and we know how I feel about assigned reading. But TKAM is a little different, in that I remembered really liking it, but for the life of me couldn’t remember why. Or anything about it, except vague impressions of Boo Radley, and something about a trial, and a fire, which I thought was the book’s climax. (It isn’t.) Curious about what ninth grade me had enjoyed so much, I grabbed a copy off of PaperBackSwap, and dug in.

And hey, it turns out the reason that I really liked this book — the reason it’s a classic, even — is that it’s really, really good! You know, you’re lucky to have me around to share things like this.

But seriously, it is.

I feel like I don’t need to go into a lot of detail here, because it’s a book that just about everyone has read, and it’s pretty much universally embraced as awesome. But I loved it; I loved how it dealt with racism (and sexism, for that matter) in a way that was completely moving, not preaching, and not talking down. Especially that last one was impressive: a lot of stuff goes over Scout’s head, but the reader picks up on it, and there’s no hammering it in. It’s just there, as part of a perfectly-crafted story.

But what really got me is the prose. From now on, when I think “narrative voice,” I will think of this book, because it is beautiful. That might be a quirk about me as a reader, actually; considering how much time I spend reading and writing, I almost never notice the actual artistic side of things. I read for entertainment; I zero in on story and character, but hardly notice the prose itself unless its particularly bad or particularly good. This is good, obviously:

Maycomb was an old town, bit it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rain weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.

It’s perfectly evocative, and so well painted that even someone like me, who rarely pauses to notice imagery and has basically no visual sense when I’m reading — I hear the words clearly in my brainvoice, but don’t actually picture things — can see it all clearly. I was actually taken aback by its loveliness, and I’m glad I stopped to pick it up.

#s 6-10: The Belgariad, by David Eddings (Rereads)

Pawn of ProphecyLast weekend, Rachel and I somehow ended up discussing epic fantasy. We both grew up on fantasy paperbacks, thanks to my dad’s fantastic collection.1 And we realized that, for all Tolkien is considered the granddaddy of epic fantasy, neither of was able to get into his stuff — too much elvish poetry, if memory serves, though I was pretty young when I attempted them — and so we’d both imprinted on David Eddings as the master of high fantasy. (I was sincerely bummed when he died last year.)

I remember the first time I read the Belgariad pretty vividly. It took me months to get through Pawn of Prophecy, the first book — but as soon as Ce’Nedra, the series’ obligatory spunky princess, showed up in the second book, I was hooked.2 I remember flying through them. I remember the chair I was sitting in when I finished the fourth book. I remember bringing the last book to school and reading it under my desk, because I couldn’t put it down. I immediately devoured the Mallorean, the five books following the Belgariad, and then the Elenium and Tamuli.3 I reread the series a few times — at least once more in middle school and once in high school — but hadn’t read it again since. And I was a little nervous, because rereading something I loved with a more critical mindset now that I’m an adult often leads to disappointment.

Queen of SorceryI wish I could say that didn’t happen, and the series is perfect. But goodness knows it isn’t. Two major things stood out to me now that didn’t when I was a tween. First, a major trope in fantasy and sci fi alike: all members of a race/species are exactly alike in terms of personality. The Belgariad has that in spades. All Drasnians are sneaky. All Chereks are drunks. And all Murgos are evil. Alllll of them. Which meant that the characters often talked cheerfully about wiping out the Murgos once and for all, and sure, in context it makes sense (because of the eeeeeevil), but as an adult I was like, “Whoa, really, genocide is the answer?” It was pretty jarring.

Magician's GambitBut even more so… (Sigh) the female characters. That was particularly disappointing because I remember loving them growing up. There are only two of particular importance, Polgara and Ce’Nedra; as a kid, I loved them both. A lot. In high school, I sort of realized that Polgara is actually extremely controlling and can be horrible for basically no reason. On the one hand, she’s treated with reverence by basically everyone else; on the other hand, there’s a lot of, “Well, Polgara, you know how she gets…” involved. And Ce’Nedra, who I adored… It makes me make this face: :-/ I love what the series does with her, that when she’s left behind so Garion can go off and have his big hero moments she realizes he’s not there to rally the army — literally — and takes it upon herself to do the things he isn’t there for. It’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, there’s a lot of time spent in the narrative on how she’s completely devious and constantly playing mindgames with Garion. And with both her and Polgara, there’s very much a feeling of, “Women: who can understand them? They’re all crazy, amiright? lollllll”

Castle of WizardryEven more distressing, the climax of the second book is Polgara facing down Salmissra, queen of the snake people. Salmissra is obsessed with appearing young and flawless, and the potions she takes to stay that way give her an insatiable sexual appetite. So she’s evil: those horrible things (female sexuality, oh no!) make her willing to ally herself with the villains, in return for said eternal youth and beauty. ‘Cause you know. Women who care about that are all shallow and evil. Again, :-/

Enchanter's EndgameBut with all that said, these books are compelling. I once again tore through them, unwilling to put them down.4 I love Garion; he’s a very, very archetypal destined hero, but he’s basically a sweet kid who wants to do the right thing, even when he’s terrified. And I love the major supporting characters, especially Silk, the sneaky thief (one of my favorite archetypes); Barak, the wry bruiser; and Durnik, who is clever and nice and basically the most awesome ever. One other thing I realized upon rereading is that not a lot actually happens in this series. The first book, in particular, is just pages and pages and pages of people walking to a place, getting sidetracked and having to go somewhere else, and then getting sidetracked and going somewhere else again. Which sounds pretty painfully dull, but these books are so enchanting that it’s enjoyable.

So in summary: as an adult, rereading these books, I had quibbles. I think if I’d read the for the first time just now, instead of having fond memories from discovering fantasy in middle school, I’d have even more — but I’d still have enjoyed them. As it is, I feel pretty confident that this won’t be the last time I reread them. And I kind of want to go pick up a bunch of other Eddings novels now. They’ve got flaws… but they’re pretty much delightful.

  1. I wish I had a picture of this thing. I don’t think my dad set out to have an enormous collection of sci fi and fantasy paperbacks, but loving to buy books is a family trait so through the decades his collection grew and grew. We had an unfinished wall of the house, growing up — the back part and the support beams. Turned out that there was enough room for two novels next to each other between beams. So they were stacked at least waist-high, the entire length of the wall. It was amazing.
  2. This is no shock. I don’t necessarily need a female character to identify with — and goodness knows I’m fond of Garion himself — but having one certainly helps. And I was way too young to identify with Polgara, the only other important female character — but a plucky redheaded princess who gets swept along with the adventures while trying to run away from her arranged marriage? SIGN ME UP.
  3. I actually like those better, because there’s no time spent on the clueless protagonist working things out — Sparhawk already knows what’s going on — and also because omg Talen!!1, who I still have a serious crush on. But I digress.
  4. They even kept me mostly off my computer for a few days. My sore wrists were grateful.