“Chronicle of a Death Foretold” by Gabriel García Márquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Since I’m currently attempting to finish and enjoying a long Victorian novel, I was still craving the sensation of finishing a book. I set out to find a short book that I could finish and came across Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez.

What intrigued me about this book was that it was based on a real event set in Colombia. I wanted to be able to read about little details of what life was like in this part of Colombia during a different time since it was written in 1981, although I’m not entirely sure what era this story itself was set in.

Thankfully, I did get plenty of that from this book. I got plenty of little details of what everyday life was like in this small town even though it was surrounded by this horrifying incident (the murder) that would take place and everyone’s foreknowledge of it.

At first I was a little confused as to why this would make a good story. But as I learned more about the events surrounding this crime, I became just as intrigued by the same questions posed by the narrator, “Why did this happen?” “Why didn’t anyone do anything to avoid it?” “Was the victim just as aware?” “Why didn’t he do anything to avoid it either?”

The narrator sets out to understand what happened surrounding this crime about 20+ years later. Why was it able to be executed in spite of everyone’s foreknowledge that Santiago Nasar would be killed at the hands of these two twin men in search of avenging their sister’s honor?

As we read, we go back and forth from past to present and back and forth through different perspectives. The twin brothers Vicario are very vocal about their intentions to everyone in town. They are so vocal about it that people don’t really believe it’s gong to happen. Everyone seems to take a very laid-back approach to their threats of killing Santiago Nasar and go about their lives. As you learn of others’ perspectives, you might even question whether they knew it would indeed happen, and their lack of interest in impeding this incident is because of a deep desire that he would be murdered.

I enjoyed this book because it was short and kept me engaged. Since it wasn’t very linear you kind of had to piece the story together as the author revealed different details through the day in the lives of the other people on the day Santiago Nasar was murdered. I also got little glimpses of life within this town — there was a big religious event taking place that day that kept everyone busy. There were different shop owners getting for their normal day, although they were aware that Santiago Nasar would be murdered. Since this story takes place by a city in the coast of Colombia there are little details of life by the shore, what food some of the people are preparing for the day, details of the kind of clothes they would wear. These were the little things I enjoyed reading, in spite the very heavy circumstance that this story is surrounded by.

One thing I wasn’t able to keep up with was the name of different minor characters and who they were, perhaps because it is a short book so the author does not spend too much time on each or because I simply wanted to get through the book. But I think that is something that can be easily fixed upon a reread, which I don’t mind doing. I was still able to follow along the story in spite of that.

Overall, this book gave me what I was looking for: a short story to finish and details of everyday life in a different culture in spite of the violent details surrounding this murder which I eventually came to be intrigued by as well. It was also my first time reading a book by Gabriel García Márquez. He was an author I wanted to become familiar with for a while since he is a very well known Colombian author, which is where my family is from. I read this book in Spanish but there’s also an English translation available.

Chronicle of a Death Foretold
Author: Gabriel García Márquez
Publisher: Vintage, Reprint Edition
Publication Date: October 2003  (originally published in 1981)

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

A Spark of Light” by Jodi Picoult

Spark of Light

For me, Jodi Picoult has, until now, been one writer whose books almost come with a guarantee of being a good read. I have read most, if not all, of her books so far. While her most recent novels, Leaving Time and Small Great Things, were not as good as her previous books, they were still very readable. I was looking forward to her new book, A Spark of Light, as a sure-shot good read rather than something I would have to read a little of to decide if I want to continue reading it or not.

I am so sorry to say that with this book, Jodi Picoult seems to have fallen off the bandwagon. The book started so badly that I was not even sure if I should continue or give up on it and find something else to read. Finally, I did decide to stick it out, based entirely on the strength of how much I had enjoyed her earlier books. I have to admit however, that at some point, I just speed-read through the rest of the book because it got too boring and I couldn’t wait to be done.

A Spark of Light is set in an abortion clinic in a town in Mississippi, a state with strict anti-abortion laws, and it tells the story of a single day, unfolding hour by hour, when a gunman bursts into the clinic and starts shooting. While a couple of people in the clinic, including the owner, are killed right away, the others are taken hostage, and the novel explores each of their individual lives and what has led them to be at the clinic on that day. They include a doctor who does the abortions, a nurse practitioner, a woman who has just had an abortion, another woman who is actually an anti-abortion activist and has come to the clinic pretending to need an abortion so she can spy on what’s going on inside, an older woman who has received a diagnosis of cervical cancer, and a fifteen year girl who was visiting the clinic with her aunt to just get a birth control prescription. The girl’s father is a local policeman who is outside and negotiating with the shooter to let the hostages go. We also get to learn more about the shooter and what motivated him to come to the clinic that day with a gun — it turns out that his seventeen year old daughter had just visited that clinic recently for an abortion, and he was a born-again Christian who was strongly pro-life.

While the plot is clearly an attempt to weave a story around the hot-button issues of abortion as well as mass shootings, A Spark of Light is completely devoid of Picoult’s usual taut and tense writing style that have made her previous books so difficult to put down. Here, the characters don’t seem real — they feel like caricatures — and it’s hard to get emotionally invested in them or even to care about their back stories. And there are so many of them, right from the start of the book, that it was extremely confusing. I had to keep going back to the beginning to keep their stories straight. Another aspect of the book that made it not just difficult but hard to enjoy was that it is told chronologically backwards, starting with the events at 5 pm that day, then 4 pm, and so on, until 9 am in the morning. So as you read the book, you already know what has happened.

As it is, it was hard to care about the characters, and with the knowledge of how the story unfolds, even the normal suspense that is there is any story was gone, making the book even more unreadable. While I can appreciate that authors, especially when they are well established, like to flout convention and break rules, it boggles my mind so to why a writer would deliberately choose to write backwards and still expect the book to be enjoyed by readers.

Needless to say, I was hugely disappointed by A Spark of Light. I had been looking forward to it so much.

A Spark of Light
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: October 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Ladder to the Sky” by John Boyne

A Ladder to the Sky

What encouraged me to pick up this book was the fact that it was written by the same author who had written The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, a book I hadn’t read but whose movie adaptation I loved. Also, the premise of the book, as captured in the blurb on the jacket cover, seemed intriguing — it was about a man who wants to be a published author by any means necessary, and he will do anything to achieve this. In this day and age, a book about a man who sets so much store by the literary word is quite a rarity!

To be fair, the man in question is not strictly of the current generation, but of the preceding one. Our first encounter with Maurice Swift is in 1988, when he is a young man working as a waiter in a posh restaurant in Germany and meets a writer in his 60s. Already very good-looking — which he uses to great advantage through his youth — Maurice turns on his full charm and quickly ingratiates himself with the older man, drawing out a dark, closely held secret from him that he then uses as the plot of his first book. For Maurice has no real talent — he can write reasonably well, but cannot come up with any ideas on his own.

Maurice continues to build his literary career on the work of others — literally climbing on their “rungs” up the metaphorical ladder of fame. (This is where the name of the book comes from.) While people who are manipulative and conniving are not that uncommon, Maurice’s literary ambitions are so intense that he can literally kill to achieve them — and he does. While disclosing whom he kills and how, would be giving away too much of the book, it is all there, making the book not just a drama but also a thriller or sorts.

I really enjoyed this book. While it is not the kind to be heralded by literary critics, I found it extremely well written with no literary artifices. The story telling was simple and straightforward, yet compelling. It turns out that the author, John Boyne, also writes books for children in addition to writing for adults, which likely accounts for his straightforward writing style, making the plot the focus of the novel and avoiding any stylistic flourishes that often get in the way of the story.

That said, what was not so straightforward about the book was that the story is told not only from perspective of different characters but also from multiple points of view. It starts with the first person written from the point of view of Erich, the older writer who is the first “rung” of Maurice’s ladder to the sky; this is followed by a second person narration from Edith, Maurice’s wife for five years before she dies (she is also a writer); a third person narration of Maurice’s life in New York where he has founded a literary magazine following the success of his books; and finally, a first person narration by Maurice himself in his fifties, when it all comes crashing down on him. Along the way, there are some “interludes,” most notably one with the acclaimed author, Gore Vidal, who sees through Maurice right away. While this multiple point of view narration was a bit disorienting, it did not necessarily detract from the story. And I suppose as a writer, you are obliged to break some rules and do something different sometimes!

One thing that definitely detracted from the book was the blurb on the jacket cover, which gave away the plot of the book right away rather than letting it come forth naturally to the reader as it would have done some way into the book. The first person narration from Erich at the start of the book, where he meets Maurice for the first time, would have been a lot more compelling had we not known upfront that Maurice was just scamming him to get a leg up in the literary world. This spoiler, right upfront on the jacket cover, was a pity, as it somewhat diminished what would otherwise have been a very strong opening for the book.

The fact that I enjoyed the book so much despite this spoiler is a testament to how good it was.

A Ladder to the Sky
Author: John Boyne
Publisher: Hogarth
Publication Date: November 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Ways to Hide in Winter” by Sarah St. Vincent

Ways to Hide in Winter

This debut novel was not on any major book list such as The New York Times Best Sellers, or featured in any of the book podcasts I listen to or any of the magazines I read. It has not won any prizes or awards as far as I know. Therefore, unlike most of the books I read, I had never heard of this one, and I only picked it up by chance when I was browsing though the New Books section in my local library. Not only was the blurb interesting, I was also intrigued by the author’s background — she is a human rights attorney and works on that full-time while writing on the side. Not only do I greatly admire those who can write books in addition to their day jobs, it is always interesting to see what sensibility they bring to their writing and how that relates to what they do professionally. Of course, this is no guarantee of the books they write being any good, but in the case of Ways to Hide in Winter, it was actually very well written. So much so that it was difficult to believe that this was a debut novel and that Sarah St. Vincent does not write full-time for a living.

The protagonist in the book is a young woman, Kathleen, who has retreated to a remote campground located in the mountains of Pennsylvania following a harrowing event in her life. She manages the store in the campground, and because there are very few locals around and hardly any visitors to that part of the country, she is by herself for most of the day, every day, which is precisely what she wants — to be left alone, to be forgotten, to be “hidden.” After a few years of living like this, a stranger shows up in the campground one day, and he too seems to be hiding from something, just like her. He is clearly a foreigner, and he tells her that he is from Uzbekistan and that his name is Daniil. There is a hostel in the campground managed by a friend of Kathleen who lets Daniil stay there for free in exchange for helping out with chores.  Because there is literally no one else around to interact with, Daniil tentatively seeks Kathleen out for some companionship. In the course of their interaction, Kathleen learns more and more about the mystery behind Daniil — she refers to him as “the stranger” for most of the book — and in the process, she is also forced to confront her own past and what has made her retreat so far away from civilization.

I found Ways to Hide in Winter very well written. We don’t get to know exactly what happened to Kathleen until the end of the book, but we do get some hints along the way, which maintained the suspense and made me want to go on reading. The mystery of “the stranger” was also compelling — who was he and why was he there? At the same time, this was not a “thriller” per se, so it was not the kind of book you simply have to finish as soon as possible to find out how it ends — I was able to enjoy it at leisure without needing to rush through it.

However, I do have to say that the end of the book, once I got to it, was somewhat anticlimactic. At the same, I have to acknowledge that it was simply an accurate portrayal of reality — life is, most of the time, not as dramatic as fiction would have us believe. Given its lack of melodrama, the absence of a plot twist, and somewhat of a “damp squib” of an ending, Ways to Hide in Winter is unlikely to win widespread critical acclaim or popular success. However, I found it extremely well written and I hope that the author continues to write more books without giving up her work as a human rights attorney. We need books that are grounded in the real world just as much as we need dramatic fiction and fantasy, and it’s great when these come from authors who actually work in the nitty gritties of the real world.

Ways to Hide in Winter
Author: Sarah St.Vincent
Publisher: Melville House
Publication Date: November 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Transcription” by Kate Atkinson

transcription

Transcription is the latest novel by Kate Atkinson, an acclaimed British novelist best known for her book, Life after Live, which was published in 2013. She is not as well-known in the US compared to the UK, and I had not read of her books until I heard her on the BBC’s “World Book Club” podcast that I recently started listening to. That piqued my interest, and when I saw a copy of Transcription in the “New Books” section of my local library, I picked it up right away. I have to admit to doing this with some trepidation, as I have, of late, found several critically acclaimed books hard to read and even harder to enjoy. Would this be one of those high-profile books I could not get beyond a few pages?

Thankfully, it was not. I wouldn’t say that it was immediately gripping, but it was eminently readable, and once I was about a quarter of the way into the book, I couldn’t put it down and read it all the way through. Transcription is the story of a woman, Juliet Armstrong, at two pivotal times of her life. The first is in 1940, towards the start of the Second World War, when Juliet is eighteen, has just completed secretarial school, and is unexpectedly recruited by the MI5 (the UK’s Security Service, similar to the FBI in the US) for a project aimed at hunting down Nazi sympathizers in Britain. Other European countries are starting to fall to the Germans and the war is closely approaching Britain. Juliet is at first required only to transcribe communications — hence the name Transcription for the book — that are being recorded between these sympathizers, but she is later drawn further and further into full-fledged espionage, and into some very frightening and dangerous events.

The second time we visit Juliet, it is ten years later, and she is working as a radio producer at the BBC. Her life at this time is, for the most part, routine and uneventful, until she runs into someone she was working with during her espionage days ten years earlier. This chance encounter triggers a chain of events, stirring memories that were dormant, and brings with it more figures from the past, along with fear and danger. Even after ten years, with the war long over, the espionage activities that Juliet had participated in are coming back to haunt her.

Thankfully, the book doesn’t keeping shifting back and forth between these two timelines after each and every chapter, but we do get some amount of alternation, so we don’t come to know exactly what horrific event Juliet was involved in towards the end of her espionage days in 1940 until much later in the book. This really is the main “mystery” of the book and it is revealed at the end, similar to most mystery books. And although Juliet ends up doing some espionage work during the war, Transcription is not really a conventional “spy thriller.” It is more of a dramatic novel focused on the character of Juliet, her life during the war, and the repercussions her work had even after the war was over. And while most novels do have some kind of romance in them, even if it very secondary, it was refreshing to read a book like Transcription that did not have any romance whatsoever. True, when Juliet is eighteen, she does wish at times that her attractive boss would make some romantic overtures towards her — she sees herself as being “ripe for the picking” — but this does not happen, and the novel is solidly focused on Juliet’s work life, both in 1940 as well as in 1950.

What I also appreciated about Transcription was its thoroughly unconventional plot. I did not have a clue as to where the story was headed and how it would end. Apparently, it was inspired by real life events — there are actual MI5 records of such transcripts of recordings from the war — and I was glad to learn about something I had no knowledge of.

While I would not put Transcription in the “must-read” category of books — the plot was not as gripping and somewhat convoluted, and there were so many characters that I had to keep turning back the pages to see who they were — it was an enjoyable read. Well-written and even funny at times — Juliet has a good sense of humor and we are privy to her inner thoughts as well as her smart wisecracks to others — I look forward reading more of Atkinson’s books and am happy to have discovered another author I like.

Transcription
Author: Kate Atkinson
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Date: September 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Shirley” by Charlotte Brontë

Shirley.jpg

I decided to pick up Shirley soon after finishing Villette, also by Charlotte Brontë. When I first started reading it, I was intrigued by two things: one, the initial conflict we are opened to, and two, that it was written in the third person.

The initial conflict reminded me of the issue dealt with in North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell. It had to do with industrialization and how this advancement was affecting some of the people of this town. The workers were indignant because they were losing their jobs to new machinery causing them to be in a state of poverty. This gave me the impression that it would be very similar to North and South, and since I loved North and South I wanted to continue.

I was also intrigued by Charlotte’s use of the third person. This would be the first novel I’d read by her written in this way. I was unsure that I’d like it, since one of the best things I love about Jane Eyre and Villette is the ability for us to be inside the mind of the main character and learn of their most intimate thoughts. But I thought I’d give it a try.

As I continued with this book, it quickly became something different than what I was expecting. The conflict between the workers and Robert Moore, the factory owner, was  present throughout the novel, because we got to see how it affected the people within this town and how this issue was dealt with. But it wasn’t at the forefront like I had thought it would be.

What did become at the forefront of this novel was one of the main characters, Caroline Helstone. Caroline is a young woman who lives with her uncle, Mr. Helstone. She lives a very lonely life but one of her greatest joys is to spend time with her cousin Robert Moore, whom she also is in love with. We get to know their relationship a little in the beginning — they both love to read and unlike her uncle, Mr. Helstone, Robert encourages her conversation and listens to her opinions. I think that him considering her opinions played a a very important in the resolution of the issue between the workers and Robert Moore’s stern position. Later on, upon disagreements between Mr. Helstone and Mr. Moore, her uncle decides that she can no longer visit her cousin. This sets the stage for her to fall into a more lonely place as she no longer has the company of one of the few people she enjoys.

During this interval of Caroline’s prohibition to visit her cousin, Robert Moore, she becomes acquainted with the recent property owner of Fieldhead, Shirley, a young woman who inherits her parents’ property, being the only child. This puts Shirley in a position of financial independence. Mr.Helstone, who becomes aware of Caroline’s depressed spirits, believes that Shirley’s company might do Caroline some good so they begin to spend more time together. I believe this is where the story began to take a little more shape as we follow their relationship from then on.

It was very lovely and enjoyable for me to learn about how their relationship develops as they do have certain similarities but stark differences in personalities. However, these differences in personalities enable them to complement one another very well. I also think that because the novel is centered around these two women, the issues that affected most women during this time do come up very strongly through each of these characters’ opinions. One issue that stood out to me was how Shirley, although financially independent, was still heckled by her uncle into marrying someone that he would approve of. But she manages to maintain her independence in choosing whom or if she would even marry at all.

A few other things that I enjoyed about this novel were the descriptions of this place in Yorkshire. I always really enjoy how Charlotte Brontë describes setting. I think it was important to describe the setting here and how blooming with flowers this place was, because it’s a story that takes place at the start of industrialization which means that it no longer looks the same. I also enjoyed how engaging the narrator was. Charlotte Brontë addresses her readers very much like in her other novels, Jane Eyre and Villette, and also offers commentary on different characters that I thought was funny.

Overall, I’m glad to have read another one of her novels. I don’t think I can choose which one is my favorite. They each have something that captivates me. For this one it was the  character Shirley, the friendship developed between Shirley and Caroline, and her writing. However, as the narrator warns the reader in the beginning, “If you think, from this prelude, that anything like a romance is preparing for you, reader, you never were more mistaken.” It is quite the placid read, but it was still enjoyable for me to follow these characters.

Shirley
Author: Charlotte Brontë
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Publication Date: June 2006  (first published in 1849)

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“The Outsider” by Stephen King

The Outsider

Stephen King has written so many bestsellers, of which so many have been made into very successful movies, that he is practically a household name. Yet, I had not read any of his books before I picked up The Outsider. It was a revelation — he writes so well! I was sucked into Outsider right away and it was impossible to put the book down until I had finished it. Also, its considerable length — which may be off-putting in some other books — only served to enhance my enjoyment of this one, as it meant more of the book that I could sink my teeth into.

The Outsider starts with the heinous murder of an eleven year old boy, who has not just been sexually violated but also gruesomely mutilated. All eyewitness accounts, as well as fingerprints and DNA, point to a popular school teacher and baseball coach who has been the pillar of the local community, and he is arrested. But it turns out that he was actually in a different city many miles away with a group of his fellow school teachers attending a literature convention, and there is actual video footage of him attending a book reading at the time when the boy was killed. So how could he be in two places at once? This is the fundamental mystery in The Outsider, and it is explored though a varied cast of characters, police interviews, investigations, and unexpected twists and turns. The fast pace of the book is maintained throughout and it is like a thrill ride up to the very end.

Had I been a little more familiar with Stephen King’s other books, I would have seen the   supernatural angle coming. After all, he is not known as the “master of horror” for nothing. Like all his other books, The Outsider also eventually relies on an otherworldly phenomenon to explain the mystery. For me, this came as somewhat of a let-down, as it seems that you can seemingly get away with anything if you put a supernatural angle to it. Even something bizarre can be explained, and you end up feeling cheated with the explanation rather than satisfied.

But the supernatural is undoubtedly Stephen King’s mojo, and it does not detract from how well written and riveting The Outsider is. I read it over the course of a long flight with a layover of several hours, and it was a godsend, providing me with not just much-needed distraction from the discomfort of travel but also unadulterated enjoyment for the entire duration of the book, from the beginning right up to the end.

The Outsider
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Lethal White” by Robert Galbraith

Lethal White

Lethal White is the fourth book in the Cormoran Strike detective series written by J.K. Rowling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I love this series, just as I had loved the Harry Potter series before it, and in preparation for the release of Lethal White — which I was able to read right away as I had pre-ordered it — I went back and re-read all the earlier books in the series, starting with Career of Evil, the third book, and then the first two, The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm.

The series is set in contemporary London and has two main characters: Cormoran Strike, an army veteran in his late thirties who lost a leg in the war, has returned to civilian life, and is trying to establish himself as a private detective; and Robin Ellacott, who comes to him as a temporary secretary for a week but ends up staying on and becoming a key part of the detective firm. Each book is focused on one key case. However, it is not just about the cases and how they are solved — there are so many authors writing thrillers these days — but also about how the investigations are tied into the personalities of Strike and Robin, their personal lives, and their relationship with each other, which is not only that of mutual respect but also has strong undercurrents of romantic tension that continue to build up over the course of the books in the series.

Strike is not a conventional hero by any means — he is overweight, very hairy, has a bit of a belly, is constantly eating burgers and the standard British fish-and-chips, and is constantly smoking and drinking beer. Robin, on the other hand, is more conventionally pretty, in addition to having a lot of character, integrity, and a genuine passion for investigative work. This is something her fiancé and later her husband, Matthew, just doesn’t get. Meanwhile, Strike has his own relationship issues with a stunningly beautiful but very damaged woman, Charlotte, with whom he has had an on-again, off-again toxic relationship for over sixteen years. They are just breaking up — after their worst fight, which well may be the last straw for Strike — at the start of the first book, and this happens to coincide with Robin’s arrival in the agency as a temp, newly engaged and on cloud nine every time she looks at her engagement ring. J.K. Rowling brings her trademark brilliance and mastery to how the relationship between Strike and Robin slowly evolves from being forced to work together, to a grudging respect, to something that neither of them wants to analyze in case it affects how well they have started working together. Robin goes from being a secretary to assistant detective to junior partner in the firm, proving herself to be indispensable in solving the tricky cases in each book, which include the apparent suicide of a famous model in The Cuckoo’s Calling, the gruesome murder of a writer in The Silkworm, and tracking down a psychopathic killer who has a personal grudge against Strike in Career of Evil.

The case in Lethal White is in two seemingly separate but somehow connected events — a claim that a child had been strangled and buried a long time ago, and the blackmailing of a minister in the British parliament who dies of what seems to be suicide but is actually murder. Surprisingly, horses play a major part in this book — in fact, the name of the book, “lethal white,” come from a genetic disorder that afflicts some breeds of horses, causing their foals to die just a few days after being born. The case happens against the backdrop of the 2012 Olympics in London, and there are several political events that play a major role in the plot, including the government-mandated austerity measures imposed in the UK during this time, the lingering impacts of the economic depression of 2008, public demonstrations and street protests by activists, political scheming and intrigues, and even the abolishment of the death penalty, which happened in the UK in 1965 but which provides a pivotal plot point.  Strike and Robin are eventually able to solve the case, and this time, they have the help of one of the additional employees Strike has been able to take on in the firm thanks to his burgeoning fame bringing in more business.

Given how much I loved the earlier books in this series and how eagerly I was awaiting this next book, I have to say that Lethal White was a huge disappointment in terms of the actual case that had to be investigated. The plot was extremely convoluted and had so many threads and aspects to it that it seemed to be all over the place. The progress of the relationship between Strike and Robin was relatively better done, and from that respect, Lethal White was less of a thriller that you can’t bear to put down and more of a drama about two people and their relationship with each other. Compared to Career of Evil — my personal favorite of the series — which starts with Robin getting a package containing the severed leg of a woman and just gets more riveting as it progresses, there was nothing which even came close to that level of thrill, suspense, and danger in Lethal White.

Just as with the Harry Potter books which were eventually adapted into movies, the Cormoran Strike books have been adapted for TV — the show is already out on BBC —  and in my opinion, once this happens, it is extremely difficult for an author to maintain the quality of his or her writing. It happened with Harry Potter — Book 7 came out well after the release of the first movie adaptations and it was simply not as good as the earlier books. Lethal White seems to have suffered from the same fate — its writing seems to have been subconsciously influenced by its upcoming dramatization and suffers as a consequence, losing its intensity, its focus, and I would even say, its purity. There are too many characters, too many events, too many plot points, and even the final setting where the villain is nabbed seems more melodramatic than genuine. Of course, this is nobody’s fault — how could any author turn down the opportunity for a dramatic adaption of their work? And how can the imagery from this adaptation not blunt their creativity, their imagination, their inspiration?

But it is such a pity for readers like me who love their books so much.

Lethal White: A Cormoran Strike Novel
Author: Robert Galbraith (aka J. K. Rowling)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: September 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Delirio” by Laura Restrepo

Delirio.jpg

I decided to read this book because I wanted to practice my Spanish, read something that reminded me of my family’s culture and the culture I grew up with (the author being Colombian), and I had already read a book that I really enjoyed by this author (Isle of Passion, a novel based on a true story of a group of people who were forgotten in the island of Clipperton).

This book was about a couple, Augustina and Aguilar, and the mystery of what happened to his wife while he went on a business trip for four days. When he returned, he found his wife in a mentally deteriorated state. She exhibited absurd behavior like setting up pots of clean water throughout the house so as to cleanse their home or behavior like rejecting her husband. For the next few days, he embarks on the journey of trying to discover what happened to his wife. This question is what intrigued me to continue reading.

The story is told in such a way that you get little hints and glimpses of what could have happened to Augustina, which in turn causes you to draw all the possible scenarios. These little hints are given to us through different perspectives of characters and different periods of time. These perspectives/time frames do not directly discuss what happened to Augustina during those 4 days that Aguilar, her husband, was gone but rather, tell the stories of different people that in some way are related to Augustina. These details are all important to understanding Augustina’s history and why she may be where she is today.

What I loved the most about this book were the different details mentioned of things that are particular to Colombian culture such as ajiaco, a typical dish from Bogotà (the city where this story takes place), empanadas, or fruit stands on the sides of the road, etc. There were also different references to literature or music as some of the other characters are into art, which was also a treat for me.

Some parts were a little harsh for me to read through since it discusses strong sexual content/violence/strong language. However, each of these parts were important to understanding different characters or situations. At times, I’d simply skip or skim through if I understood the general idea of what was being said. But I suppose the details do add the effect that the author intended it to have upon the reader and unfortunately, these are the realities for some people’s lives.

Overall, it was a book that, surprisingly, I breezed through since I was dying to know what happened to Augustina and how all these details would come together. Although, I read this book in Spanish, there is also an English translation available. (It is called Delirium.)

Delirio
Author: Laura Restrepo
Spanish Publisher and Publication Date: Alfaguara, 2004
English Translation Publisher and Date: Vintage International, March 2008

Contributor: Nathalie Dorado-Fields is a stay at home mother who lives in Mount Vernon, Ohio.

“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” by Jonas Jonasson

The 100 year old Man.jpg

The title of this book points to what a laugh riot it will be and in that respect, it does not disappoint. Translated from Swedish to English, it tells the story of Allan Karlsson, a 100 year old man still in good health, who escapes from the nursing home, where he has been forced to live, on the morning of his 100th birthday — and from the party planned in his honor that day — and goes, literally, on the run. Along the way, he collects not just a suitcase full of cash but also a motley crew of a 70 year old petty thief, a highly educated hot-dog stand proprietor and his brother, a red-headed fiery-tempered woman with a dog and an elephant, the head of a gang of thugs, and a police chief. Eventually, the six of them — along with the dog and the elephant — manage to escape to Bali in Indonesia with the cash, where they live happily ever after.

Is this doesn’t sound hilarious enough, throw in the two accidental deaths of the thugs who had stolen the money in the first place, with one of them dying in the cold storage where he was locked up temporarily by Allan and his 70 year old cohort, and the second dying from being crushed by the redhead’s elephant when she (the elephant) inadvertently sat on him!

In addition to following Allan’s journey all the way from his solo escape from the nursing home to the collective escape of his group of six to Bali in the present — which is the year 2005 — the book also recounts the story of his life all the way from his birth in 1905 to how he eventually landed up in the nursing home. We get a good primer on world history in the course of this narration, because it turns out that Allan has participated in some of the key events of the 20th century — thanks to being an explosives expert — such as the Second World War in Europe, the development of the atom bomb in the US, the uprising in Iran, the Cold War between the US and USSR, the Korean War, and the political unrest in Indonesia. He has also not only met, but actually interacted with some of the most prominent historical figures of the last century including General Franco, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Stalin, Kim Jong II, Chairman Mao, and Charles de Gaulle.

Of course, most of this is downright unbelievable and therefore The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared is not a book to be taken seriously, but it is very well written with intelligent, tongue-in-cheek, laugh-out loud humor that is not slapstick in the least. For some reason, we have plenty of comedy when it comes to TV and movies, but it is difficult to find books in this genre, so this book is a real find.

While you would not expect a book like this to have any life lessons, there is one sentence that captures the essence of Allan’s philosophy of life: “Things are what they are, and whatever will be, will be.” These were his mother’s words when he was a boy, and while it took some years for the message to seep his soul, once it was there, it was there forever and guided everything he did. I can’t imagine a more Zen-like summation of and approach to life!

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Author: Jonas Jonasson
Publisher: Hachette Books
Publication Date: September 2012

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” by Ottessa Moshfegh

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

The premise of this book is very intriguing – a young woman decides to go into hibernation for a year to get through a depressing and listless period of her life. She has plenty of money to bankroll this, thanks to her inheritance from her wealthy parents who died within six months of each other a few years ago. Rather than committing suicide, which would be a permanent end to life, she thinks of “checking out” for a year, hoping it will help with the general malaise she is feeling and rejuvenate her. This hibernation – a whole year of rest and relaxation — is accomplished with the help of a large number of drugs prescribed by a not-very-professional therapist the woman manages to find, who seems to have no issues prescribing increasingly stronger drugs for depression and insomnia that the woman tells her she is experiencing.

Not only is the plot of book so fascinating, it also draws you in right away. Narrated in first person, it is almost like reading a diary – it is brutally honest and describes the narrator’s thoughts and feelings in such vivid detail, we can almost feel like we are her. The first person account is so well maintained throughout the book that we never learn the narrator’s name. We do, however, learn a lot of other details about her – in addition to having a lot of money, she is smart with a degree in art history from Columbia, and she is outstandingly pretty without even trying, attracting a lot of attention from guys and envy from women. She lives in a fancy apartment in Manhattan, buys very expensive clothes, and occasionally dates. She has an on-again off-again relationship with a handsome and successful man working in Wall Street, and has one loyal friend who is always dropping in to check on her. After graduation, she lands a job in a prestigious art gallery reputed for discovering “eclectic” artists and hosting their cutting-edge, post-modernist work.

While all of these may seem to be more than enough for a very rewarding and satisfying life for most people, for our narrator, they are not. While there is no one particular event that triggers her wanting to “check out” and go into hibernation, it seems to be the culmination of years of not having many happy or joyful moments, and a childhood growing up with parents who really didn’t feel anything for each other. Sometimes, it is not just the presence of bad things that can lead to antipathy and depression; it can also very well be the absence of good things. And this seems to be what is afflicting our narrator.

While the first few chapters of the book continue to hold your interest as you learn more about the narrator, her background, her reasons for wanting to hibernate, and the process she follows – heavy doses of drugs which make her sleep most of the time, long periods of blackouts in which she does not know what she is doing or where she is going, a lot of TV watching, trips to the local coffee shop to pick up coffee and snacks, a lot of take-out for meals, monthly visits to the therapist and the pharmacy to refill prescriptions – it begins to get very repetitive after some time, and I found myself skipping a lot of the content towards the second half of the book. By this time, you also lose sympathy for the narrator as she shows herself to be quite a selfish, uncaring person, and is particularly mean to her one friend who continues to visit her. You simply stop caring about what happens to her.

The time period that the book is set in is an important part of the plot, although you don’t realize that in the beginning. The woman goes into hibernation in the summer of 2000, which means that when her “one year” ends, it is close to 9/11. Her friend was working in the World Trade Center when the planes hit, and she keep watching the recording of the event over and over as it seems like one of the women jumping off from one of the towers may have been her friend.

The book ends with this, and you can’t help but read it with a catch in your throat.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
Author: Ottessa Moshfegh
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: July 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler

Clock Dance

Willa Drake—the protagonist of Anne Tyler’s latest novel, Clock Dance—is a self-defeating, self-effacing wimp.

Tyler divided Willa’s story into two parts. The first part consists of three situations in which Willa made self-defeating, shoot-yourself-in-the-foot, type choices.

When she is eleven years old, Willa rejects both her parents in a prolonged pre-teen pout. It’s easy to see why she rejects her mother: she’s a moody person who sometimes leaves her family to fend for themselves, and then returns pretending that nothing has happened. Willa’s anger at her mild-mannered, even-tempered father, is harder to fathom. She seems to deliberately take offense at something he says in an effort to comfort her while her mother is gone. The reader is left to wonder the real reason she gets angry and refuses his love. Is it because he is too passive to confront her mother? Because he goes along with the pretense that everything is fine? Or is it because he doesn’t take seriously Willa’s effort to fill the gap?

By the time she is 21, Willa is so far gone that when the passenger on one side of her in a jet airplane threatens her life with a gun, she doesn’t react in any way. She doesn’t scream; she doesn’t question the guy about what he wants; she doesn’t alert her boyfriend on the other side of her; she doesn’t alert the stewardess who comes by. Her will is paralyzed. When she later tells her boyfriend, he is incredulous and discounts her story.

She and her boyfriend, Derek Macintyre, are flying to visit her parents because Derek wants to marry her. Where Willa is weak, Derek is willful and assertive. Willa wants to wait until she has finished college, but he wants to marry in the summer coming up and move to California to start his career. His plans are more important to him than her plans, which he discounts. Toward the end of their week-end visit, he announces their engagement to her parents. Her mother says all the right things: she points out that he isn’t looking at Willa’s side of things and what Willa would have to give up for him. And she particularly notes that Derek had brushed off Willa’s story of being threatened on the airplane, because it shows how he disrespects her. Derek confronts her mother in a way that her father never could, and calmly tells her off. Instead of being strengthened by her mother’s support, Willa reacts against it, and against her own best interests, by giving into Derek.

After 20 years of predictable life with Derek—giving up college to raise two sons, being the sort of dependable mom she wishes her mother had been—Willa is suddenly left to her own devices when Derek is killed in an accident caused by his own road rage. She feels helpless and incompetent, which is the way he had always treated her. She begins to wonder about the purpose of life, or simply ‘why bother?’ She had always wanted to be so reliable that her sons could take her for granted, but now she finds that being taken for granted is not very satisfying. She still longs for someone to take care of her, and to boss her around.

The real story, Part II, starts when Willa is 61 years old, and it opens with a call to another life, an offer she can’t refuse. It takes the form of a phone call from someone who mistakenly assumes that Willa is the grandmother of an 8-year-old girl whose mother had been shot in the leg, in her neighborhood in Baltimore. She wants Willa to take care of the girl, Cheryl, while her mother, Denise, is in the hospital. Willa is now married to Peter, who is the same type as Derek, and is living the same arid retirement life in Arizona that she would have had with him. Uprooted from her world in California, Willa feels her life is meaningless and boring. When she hears of a child in need of a grandma, she can’t resist the temptation to play the role. Perhaps for the first time in her life, she spontaneously makes a major decision, without consulting Peter, and books her flight to Baltimore. Her bid for independence is somewhat muted by his decision to accompany her, condescendingly assuming she can’t handle the flight by herself.

Peter is fairly helpful, or at least non-interfering, but his attention is still on his own world, his business associates and golf buddies. Willa adapts to her role as grandmother, which includes adapting to a colorful cast of characters in the poor but respectable neighborhood where Cheryl and Denise live. She becomes so engrossed in her new life that she barely notices when Peter goes back to his world in Arizona. Meanwhile she is developing self-reliance—learning to drive a strange car around a strange town, learning to make decisions and choices on her own, learning to appreciate ‘everyday people,’ learning, for the first time, to enjoy the absence of a man to dominate her life. And the reader keeps thinking she ought to go back to her husband. Or should she?

My usual preference is for novels that are intellectually challenging, with a difficult vocabulary and complicated sentences, with big ideas and heavy drama. But sometimes I need a vacation from all that, and then I turn to Anne Tyler. Clock Dance is her 21st novel, and I have read about half of them. Her themes are positive and life-affirming, but her stories don’t reek of sentimentality and preachiness because her style is so spare and understated. It’s like Quaker wood furniture—functional but not fancy, well-crafted but plain. Tyler is generous with homely detail and engaging minor characters, but she is spare in her depiction of Willa’s inner life. By leaving a lot unsaid, she forces the reader to use their imagination.

For me, Anne Tyler is consistently good, but never great. But that’s okay. It’s like simple home cooking compared to gourmet meals—sometimes that’s just what I need.

Clock Dance
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: July 2018

Contributor: Jan Looper Smith writes about her culture experiences for a blog called “In the Loop.”

“My Ex-Life” by Stephen McCauley

My Ex-Life

This was a fun, breezy book, a welcome change from the intense, heavy, and serious plotlines of most of the current crop of critically acclaimed novels that I have been reading lately. However, it was not escapist fiction by any means, which can be fun to read at times, but is neither memorable not uplifting. My Ex-Life was both.

The book tells the story of a gay man, David, who travels from San Francisco to the East Coast to help out his ex-wife, Julie, who he was briefly married to in his early twenties, and her seventeen year old daughter from a subsequent marriage, Mandy, whose father, Henry, is pushing her to “get her act together” and get into a good college. David is a college counselor, and when Mandy finds out that he was Julie’s first husband, she reaches out to him. She is going through the turmoil and angst typical of kids of that age, and it is compounded by the fact that her parents are going through a divorce. While this is not an emotional blow for Julie — she fell out of love with Henry a long time ago — it is problematic in a different way — she will lose the house that she jointly owns with Henry unless she buys out his share. She is running it as an Airbnb, and while she is not making a whole lot of money from it, she loves it.

David, too, is in somewhat of a crisis — his younger boyfriend has left him for another man, and the house that he was renting is going to be sold, so he will have to find another place to live. Therefore, when Mandy reaches out to him, ostensibly for help with her college applications, he actually travels to the small town near Boston called Beauport where Julie lives, to visit them and help Mandy in person. He ends up staying at the Airbnb and helping Julie with it, doing a lot of repairs and de-cluttering. Despite the breakup of their marriage all those years ago, David and Julie remain very fond of each other, and their deep mutual affection is rekindled by David’s extended visit. Not only is he working with Julie on trying to get the money to buy out Henry’s share so she can retain the house, the trip to Beauport has also allowed him to get away from his own problems in San Francisco. And, of course, there’s the challenge of helping Mandy, who has some other issues in addition to typical teenage rebellion and aimlessness.

With such an unconventional plotline, My Ex-Life was hard to put down, and it was made even more enjoyable by the quality of the writing, especially the humor. There were so many parts that were funny, especially earlier on in the book — David’s chance meeting with his ex-boyfriend at a party, Julie’s struggles with her pot addiction, Mandy’s summer job at a knick-knacks store in Beauport from which she is fired for not having an enthusiastic “cheery” attitude that could encourages sales, and the increasingly scathing feedback from the Airbnb consultant that Julie has hired to figure out how to improve business as she (the consultant) is taken on a tour of the house. All of the humor is extremely witty, and I appreciated that it was intelligent rather than slapstick.

It was also both funny and insightful to learn about David’s work as a college counselor and read some of the college essays that the students he was counseling were writing for their applications. Apparently, about 90% of essays begin with the mention of a grandparent or cancer and these rarely get read by admission directors, since they have so many to plow throw. In contrast, there is this one with an opening that is impossible to not continue reading:

Growing up, my father encouraged my brother and me to piss in the kitchen sink when my mother wasn’t home.”

Just that one line made reading this book so worth it!

My Ex-Life
Author: Stephen McCauley
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication Date: May 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“A Place for Us” by Fatima Farheen Mirza

A Place for Us

This book had almost too much hype surrounding it, as it was the first book to be published by Sarah Jessica Parker’s new imprint at Hogarth Publishing, called SJP. (She is best known as the lead actress from TV’s Sex and the City.) Apparently, it was hand-picked by her and she described herself as being “taken hostage by Fatima Mirza’s heartrending and timely story.” I was naturally excited when I was able to get a copy of the book to read — I expected it to be mind-blowing.

At the outset, I must say that it was not. It tells the story of a traditional Muslim family living in the San Francisco Bay area — although it would be more accurate to say that it is more of a narration of their lives rather than a “story” as such. The parents are extremely religious and follow all the Islamic rules and rituals. They have three children, all of whom were born in the US. You would expect some kind of conflict between the parents and the kids, some kind of culture clash, which is so much a part of the immigrant experience. However, for the family in A Place for Us, the two older children — who are girls — grow up following the religion and being obedient daughters, not out of fear of their parents but because they simply do not question their faith. While they do go on to achieve professional success — one becomes a doctor and the other a teacher – their lives are firmly rooted in Islam. They both wear the hijab and end up marry Muslims. About the only rebellious thing the elder daughter does is marry a Muslim boy from a different sect!

There is some drama, however, that comes from the youngest child, Amar, who does rebel – he smokes, drinks alcohol, and eventually gets into drugs, all of which are forbidden by Islam. Naturally, he clashes with his traditional parents and ends up leaving home. And oh, he also falls for a girl, but she is also a Muslim. That is the extent of his non-conformity. Amar never returns home, apart from a brief visit for his sister’s wedding. The book ends with the father looking back on his parenting with some regret and wishing that he had been less angry and more loving with his children, so that his son was not driven away.

This, really, was the extent of the plot of the book. Apart from Amar rebelling and leaving the house, nothing really happens. There is no other issue, no calamity as such. It made me wonder why I was even reading about this family, with its relative lack of problems. If all they had to worry about was one child not being sold on the religious beliefs of the family, they seemed to be very lucky. Even the fact that they were Muslims in an increasingly Islamaphobic world did not emerge as an issue. There was only a brief reference to 9/11 and its aftermath — Amar got into a fight at school and the two older girls stopped wearing the hijab for some time following their parents’ advice — but that was about it. A passing reference is made to the 2016 election towards the end of the book, but I imagine that most of the book must have been written before the current hostile political climate.

Given the lack of a real plot, what may have given the book credibility and led to its selection by Sarah Jessica Parker as the first book for her new imprint was that it was very well written and provided a lot of details about the lives of the individual members of the family. I could see how this could be a novelty to Western audiences, allowing them a glimpse into a totally different way of life and culture — how a Muslim family lives in the US, how the kids are brought up, what are the customs and rituals they follow, and so on. However, as someone from India who now lives in the US, none of these details were new to me or even especially interesting. It was as if anyone could just capture the mundane details of their life — how they were brought up, the little things they did, their relationships with their parents and their siblings, etc. — and it would be worthy of publication in a novel. I imagine that many of the details in A Place for Us come directly from the author’s own life and experiences, given that it is her first novel and most first novels tend to be very autobiographical.

I would put this book in the same category as Exit West, another book that was highly acclaimed by critics, but which I did not much care for. While I appreciate the fact that these young authors are getting a chance and feel happy for them, I wish critics and publishers were a little more discerning and found books with some real merit to them.

A Place for Us
Author: Fatima Farheen Mirza
Publisher: SJP for Hogarth
Publication Date: June 2018

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee

To Kill A Mockingbird

Recalling her reaction to reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, my friend said, “When I finished it, I just wished that everyone could be like Atticus Finch, or at least try.” Indeed. If only everyone could be decent and virtuous through and through. If only everyone would treat others with respect, regardless of their place in society. If only everyone could retain their faith in humanity in the face of prejudice and ignorance, in the face of threats against himself and his family. If only every parent could be gentle and understanding while setting firm limits. If only every man who was a dead-eye shot could avoid using a gun except when it is necessary to defend the community from a clear-cut danger.

Harper Lee intended for readers to long for decency. Not only that, but she spelled out exactly what she thought ‘decency’ and ‘right living’ means on a wide range of issues from large to small: what is justice, what is honor, what is duty; what is sympathy, what is courtesy, what is tact; what does it mean to love one’s neighbor; how does a reckless child learn to be a responsible adult? She demonstrated her code through both the actions and the words of her characters.

Far from being the utilitarian and sentimental potboiler that I expected, To Kill a Mockingbird is a masterpiece of fiction. Harper Lee unfolds her stories in such a homely and leisurely manner that you don’t realize you’re taking in a systematic moral treatise at the same time.

The literary device that enabled the author to reveal the setting, the plot, and the characters slowly, in tiny easily digestible units, was using the viewpoint of Atticus’s daughter, a precocious little girl, in her eighth and ninth years, called Scout. Lee didn’t attempt to create a childish voice, but she depicted events in the way that Scout experienced them.

In order to deal with themes of racism and justice, the major plot has to do with the trial of a handicapped black laborer, Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of the rape of a white woman. Atticus Finch is assigned by the judge to defend Tom, and he makes a very convincing case for Tom’s innocence, while knowing that the jury would never take the word of a Negro over that of a white man. When a mob threatens to lynch Tom, Atticus is prepared to defend him without using a weapon, sticking by his principles at the risk of his own life.

The subplot concerns a reclusive neighbor, known by the children as Boo. When he was a young man, Boo, whose real name is Arthur Radley, got in trouble with the law while hanging out with a gang of ruffians. His parents’ response was to keep him hidden at home. After 15 years of isolation, Arthur casually stabbed his father in the leg as he passed by. It is evident that he needs some kind of help, but his father refuses to let him go to an asylum, so he ends up back at home, even more isolated. When his parents finally die, his older brother Nathan moves in and continues Boo’s confinement.

Scout and her brother Jem, who is about 4 years older, and their summertime friend Dill, who is 8-10 years old, make the mysterious Boo into a dangerous monster. Sometimes they are afraid to pass his house; other times, they try to provoke him to show himself. Although they manage to rile his brother Nathan—who takes a pot shot at them when they enter the Radley place late at night in an effort to leave Boo a friendly note—Boo sees their gesture as friendly play, as it was intended. He responds by leaving tiny keepsakes in a hole in an oak tree, but mean Nathan cuts off that form of contact by filling the hole with cement.

The way these two plots are intertwined is a marvel to behold.

The man who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape is a shiftless, no-account white man, named Bob Ewell, who lives on welfare with a ragged bunch of motherless children next to the dump—quite literally ‘poor white trash,’ but still higher in the social pecking order than the lowly Negroes. His eldest daughter, Mayella, age 19—friendless and isolated, like Boo—becomes attracted to Tom Robinson when he passes her house each day on the way to and from his job working as a laborer on a nearby farm. Although his left arm is damaged and hangs useless, he is young and strong. His only fault is sympathizing with Mayella’s situation. He sees that she totally lacks support from her father and the younger children in the family, and he instinctively comes to her aid when she asks him to help with some task. When she takes advantage of the situation to kiss him and hold him in her arms, she seals his doom. Her father observes the embrace through a window and totally freaks out. He enters the house raging, and when Tom quickly departs, he proceeds to whack Mayella about the head and neck, not stopping until she is on the floor. Then he covers up his violence by accusing Tom of rape, and Mayella goes along with this in order to hide her shame.

The courtroom scenes where Atticus reveals the Ewells’ squalid life and the flimsiness of their accusations through patient and respectful questioning are great set pieces of sustained drama. The children look on from the balcony among the black community, who are stunned that any white man would put so much of himself into defending a black man. The raucous white people on the floor are temporarily subdued by doubt and suspense. After unexpectedly long deliberations, the all white male jury finds Tom guilty and sentences him to death. The injustice of the verdict hits the children and the reader like an anvil falling to the floor.

Though Bob Ewell gets his way in court, he is humiliated by the experience, and he vows to get Atticus if it takes the rest of his life. Instead of going directly for the attorney, he attacks Scout and Jem on Halloween night. Scout is saved by the chicken wire in her ham costume and rolls comically out of danger, but Ewell succeeds in twisting Jem’s arm behind his back and is on the verge of delivering a fatal blow with a jack knife, when he is overpowered by Boo, who stabs him to death with a kitchen knife. It is unclear to the children who saved them: Jem passes out and Scout’s vision is impeded by her awkward costume. When Sheriff Tate arrives on the scene, he quickly figures out what has happened, but he chooses to cover up the truth—by saying Ewell fell on his own knife—because saving the children’s lives would make him a hero in the small town, and he figures Boo would hate being the center of attention—it would be a kind of punishment.

The issue of killing mockingbirds is mentioned early in the book, when Atticus gives Scout and Jem air rifles for Christmas. He tells them never to point a gun indoors, and never to shoot a mockingbird, because killing a mockingbird is sinful. A friendly neighbor explains why: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.” At the end, when Sheriff Tate decides to hide the truth about how Bob Ewell died, he explains: “To my way of thinkin’, Mr. Finch, taking the one man who’s done you and this town a great service an’ draggin’ him with his shy ways into the limelight—to me, that’s a sin.” Scout understands this. She says, “Well, it’d be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” There’s a time for justice, and a time for mercy.

All this drama and high seriousness is interwoven with comical scenes, such as the hilarious Halloween pageant featuring children dressed as the agricultural products of the region. Or the meeting of the ladies’ Christian group that earnestly discusses the plight of some happy heathens, while freely engaging in un-Christian prejudice against members of their own community. Or Scout’s first day in school, when her teacher is reduced to tears by her own ineptitude and one of the younger Ewell children, who sasses her and walks out of school. Or Jem’s attempt to use a fishing pole to get a message to Boo in the middle of the night, and losing his pants in the process.

As appealing as this story is—full of homely detail, childish innocence, and colorful anecdotes—it is tempting to take it literally, but it is not a documentary, it is a story, a constructed piece of fiction. In fact it is a parable—a story with a moral. The characters have been idealized and simplified to illustrate certain principles.

I read this book because I wondered why it kept appearing on so many lists of best books and favorites. It appeals to our longing for basic human decency with subtle and refined artistry.

To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Publication Date: July 1960

Contributor: Jan Looper writes a blog for armchair culture vultures.