Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Talking over Go Set a Watchman a great book club opportunity

As everyone weighs in on Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman," let's consider it as a book club selection.
There's a lot to argue about.
Realize: This is not the same book, not the same plot, not the same Atticus, and not consistently crafted. Although it occurs later in time (Scout is grown up) it was written before "To Kill a Mockingbird." That's important, because Lee's writing skill was not what it became on a second approach. She is a good writer, but she's undisciplined here.
As two million or so people have now learned, you can't judge a book by its author. I tried to read "... Watchman" with an open mind. That mind has now closed the book, finished.
As a fall book club topic, it's a natural. There is much to debate.
First off, high praise for the nameless editor who persuaded Harper Lee to shelve this book in the first place and create another, based on the young Jean Louise—whom the world knows as "Scout." Jean Louise's childhood memories in "Go Set a Watchman" are far more interesting than the rest of the overwritten novel. The result of that advice, "To Kill a Mockingbird," is a beautiful, impactful book with memorable characters. "Watchman" is not.
Yet, it's a bit unfair to compare the two, as clubs must do. They are not companion pieces. (They are, however, a publisher's dream.)
In "...Watchman," we meet Scout—now Jean Louise Finch, five years into her career. She's working in New York City and visiting her father in Maycomb annually, and she's ready to say "yes" to a childhood friend she doesn't really love because she's susceptible to the siren call of traditional marriage and family, although reluctant to commit. As it's set in a time of early civil rights unrest, the book basically revolves around a horrific revelation about Atticus. You'll have to decide for yourself what his motivations are and how much they reflect the times vs. his character.
This is an immature work, beautiful in parts, funny in others. It's also stocked with exaggerated characters, awkward narrative shifts, and a nearly incomprehensible, poorly written climax, in which Jean Louise rails hysterically against her father's betrayal of all she believes he stands for. Lee wraps it up with a epiphany of sorts for Scout.
The plot plods, especially over first hundred pages—a little too much Jan Karon and not enough Harper Lee. But the racial unrest is real, reflected in the characters and in situations Jean Louise confronts.
Reading both books is the best way for club members to grasp the enormous task of making a weak novel into a good one. Sometimes, an author has to throw out what doesn't work. The question is whether people can and should separate the two works. And whether Lee should have thrown this out.
The society of the confederate flag, segregation and slavery, in the early years of the civil rights movement, haunts Jean Louise. And, she says, "I need a watchman to lead me around and declare what he seeth every hour on the hour. I need a watchman to tell me this is what a man says but this is what he means, to draw a line down the middle and say here is this justice and there is that justice and make me understand the difference."
But the novel dissipates into confusion, histrionics and an emotional morass, at least in my reading.
Borrow, don't buy, "Go Set a Watchman" new. There'll be many copies available at used books sales in the fall.
Book clubs, Facebook style
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerman is gearing up his 50,000 minions—err, Facebook users—to read a book!
Zuckerman set up a "virtual" book club, dubbed "A Year of Books," geared toward history, technology, various cultures. Lecturers, experts, geniuses—expect the unexpected. He announces a new choice every two weeks on a dedicated Facebook page, A Year of Books. Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow" is a recent selection. Alexander is a civil rights lawyer writing about the realities of incarceration specific to African-American man, certainly a hot topic in our society.
Earlier choices (and discussions) include: "Dealing with China" by Henry M. Paulson Jr.; "Orwell's Revenge" by Peter Huber; "Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration" by Ed Catmull; "On Immunity" by Eula Biss; "Gang Leader for a Day" by Sudhir Venkatesh; "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker, psychology professor at Harvard.
Your group may find one of these books perfect for discussion.
Book group meetings
At Haston Library in North Brookfield, Ellen Smith says, the club is reading "Orphan Train" by Christina Baker Kline for its Aug. 25 meeting. The group meets the last Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Robin Brzozowski leads one of two book groups at Athol Public Library. Booked for Lunch (nice name!) meets the fourth Monday, noon to 1 p.m., with refreshments from Friends of the Library. New member drop-in visits are fine. "We read popular fiction, a few non-fiction selections and an occasional classic," says Brzozowski. "Our discussions are intelligent and they are quite lively. Everyone is given the opportunity to share their thoughts, followed by an informal roundtable discussion." Contact the library for September's selection.
Book club at Sterling Library will resume at 1 p.m., Sept. 2, with a classic selection, Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment."
At Southbridge, members will meet at 6:30 p.m., Aug. 3, in Jacob Edwards Library to discuss "This Boy's Life" by Tobias Wolff.
The evening book group at Thayer Memorial Library will meet July 28 to discuss Kafka's "The Trial" and Aug. 25, to discuss "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.
The Worcester Public Library book club, says Morgan Manzella, next meets at 2:30 p.m., Aug. 8, and 3 p.m., Aug. 12, to discuss Neil Gaiman's "American Gods."
The Women's Issues Book Group of National Organization for Women meets the second Monday monthly, 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble, 541 Lincoln St., Worcester. Up next (Aug. 10) is Sonia Sotomayor's "My Beloved World." Sotomayor is the first Hispanic to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court; she writes of her life, beginning at a Bronx house project.
The Friday Morning Book Club at Northborough Public Library has slated "Call the Nurse" by Mary MacLeod for 10 a.m., Aug. 14.
At Westborough Public Library, readers will discuss "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy at the 7 p.m., Aug. 3 Monday Evening Book Discussion.
Douglas Library Book Group will consider Pearl Buck’s "The Good Earth" at 6:30 p.m., Aug. 11. A copy of the book may be borrowed through Simon Fairfield Public Library, 508-476-2695. New members are welcome, says Director Justin Snook. Homemade refreshments, inspired by the title, will be served.
Leominster's Brown Bag Book Club, which meets at noon, Aug. 6, will discuss Lisa Genovra's "Left Neglected." Leader Jane Maguire says the Sept. 3 meeting topic is "Infidel" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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