I woke up Sunday morning in an absolutely awful mood – a straight week of rain, friend group drama, the deep and existential dread that pervades all otherwise unburdened moments of our brief lives, my cat was mad at me, etc. – and decided to put the feeling to good use before it went away by rereading the Chronicles of Narnia.
Look. Look, I have not been an English major for a whole year and a half/ I have not taken any kind of literature class since May of 2014. I have nothing but emotions and a love of literature and I have read To Kill A Mockingbird six times and frankly I think that makes me qualified to be right about everything, always.
Your opinion about Atticus Finch is wrong.
Let me make this clear: I do not care what Harper Lee thinks. I do not care what Harper Lee’s intention was in releasing Go Set A Watchman, if she indeed did have an intention, and was not, as some have suggested, pressured into it or unaware of the decisions she was making. I do not care what Harper Lee believes about Atticus as a character, or her father as a person, or the South, or racism, or anything. The author is dead. The text is not in Heaven. My opinion about Atticus Finch is right.
Here are opinions people have been having about the new Harper Lee book, where Atticus is racist:
- Atticus Finch was a white Southerner living in the Jim Crow rural South. His character needs to be seen as part of that environment. Trying to force our 21st-century values on him is a ridiculous way to read the text.
- This makes Atticus more realistic and interesting.
- This isn’t out-of-character at all! Atticus is a lawyer, he defends people regardless of their race, he can be super super racist and defend a black man.
- I’m glad that we get to see the real Atticus now, not the false version seen through young Scout’s eyes.
These opinions are bad and they should feel bad about themselves:
- Anti-racism is not a modern value or a new idea.
- I wanna repeat that bullet point because Jesus Christ. The idea that racism is bad is not new. It was around when Harper Lee wrote the damn book back in 1960. It was around before that, for God’s sake, when the Supreme Court decided that it was a bad thing to let schools discriminate on the basis of race. It was around before that, when Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells and Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes were writing. It was around before that, when people protested the Chinese Exclusion Act, and the poor treatment of immigrants, and goddamn slavery. It was around in 1492 when the first Taino wrapped her head around the idea that this asshole with a gun was shooting her family and forcing her into slavery because he didn’t like the color of her skin.
- Anti-racism has been a value that literally everyone except dominant races have held since forever.
- Also, if you are writing about the rural South in the 1930s, racism is not an interesting character flaw.
- It is right up there with “Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking.“
- Holding an anti-racist position is an interesting character trait. Holding a racist one is not. It’s not! Racism is incredibly common! When everyone is a terrible person, goodness is interesting!
- Goodness is actually interesting literally all the time, but we’re not getting into that right now.
- This is unbelievably out of character. Atticus emphatically behaves unusually with regards to Tom Robinson – he refuses to say the n-word, he defends him properly and with energy and real work when no other citizen of the town would, he says, emphatically, that it is not okay to hate anybody.
- Yes, this is liberal individualistic half-assed anti-racism. This doesn’t really address the systematic inequality that means Calpurnia is their servant, or that Tom Robinson was in the position he was in the first place. But it is still out of character for him to have attended goddamn Klan meetings.
- (Side note: Klan meetings??????)
- Racist!Atticus is not the real Atticus. He is not the actual Atticus that has been kept hidden from us all these years. He is a fictional character. His TKAM self is just as real and honest and valid and true as his racist self.
- Your opinion is bad and you should feel bad.
- Heh, Harper Leegacy.
Once upon a time, there was an author named Sir Terry Pratchett.
He was a crotchety old British man, the kind with an enormous white beard and wire-rimmed glasses and a very large hat. Looking at him, you might be forgiven for thinking he looked rather like a twenty-first century Santa Claus; he certainly had that twinkle in his eye, that peculiar and unquenchable spirit that you associate with, in the midst of a world that is so often dark and cold and unamusing, something very bright and mischievous and good.
He was, presumably, not always so. There must have been a time when he was not so crotchety, or not so old, or not so bright. There must have been, even, a time when he was not an author.
But the story begins: Once upon a time there was an author named Sir Terry Pratchett. And so it does not matter, really, that the story was not always true.
All that matters is that the story gets told.
In a concept blatantly stolen from my friend Tommy Collison, I’m switching up my Thursday-posting schedule to get in a breakdown of the books I’ve been reading this year. I think making year-in-reviews of books is a fantastic idea; at any given time, a solid 20-25% of my brainspace is devoted to thinking about what I’m reading and wondering what I’m going to read next.
I’ll post a list of every book I read this year under the cut, but for now, here are some quick reviews:
Top 5 Nonfiction Books
5. Little Golden America, by Ilya Ilf and Eugen Petrov, is one of the weirder books I read this year. It was written in 1936, by two Soviet humorists who were sent by the USSR to the United States and instructed to go on a road trip and write about their experiences, with predictably strange, funny, and incredibly interesting results. Think Jack Kerouac as written by Abbott and Costello with a healthy helping of Communist propaganda, and you’ll have some idea of what reading this book was like. It was amazingly interesting – I would absolutely recommend it.
4. Hell’s Angels, by Hunter S. Thompson, is well-known enough already that anything I could say about it would likely be redundant. Suffice to say that Hunter S. Thompson’s prose holds up in 2014 and will likely hold up until the end of time, and though the book’s topic and values are now somewhat dated, reading this book is still a ridiculously enjoyable experience.
3. Gimme Something Better, by Jack Boulware and Silke Tudor, is an oral history of Bay Area punk from the late 1970s up to about 2008. I haven’t read much about punk rock since I was roughly fourteen, but doing so is always worthwhile: the idealism, love of music, take-no-bullshit practicality, and fierce teenage black-and-white stick-it-to-the-man anger of punk are always in equal parts entertaining and inspiring. I especially loved this book because it features landmarks and neighborhoods from where I grew up: Rockridge, Blondie’s Pizza, Gilman, the Lawrence Hall of Science.
2. I read Unspeakable Things, by Laurie Penny, in about two hours on a car ride this summer, and I’ve been rereading it over and over ever since. I’ve been a feminist for a long time, but I’ve never read a feminist writer that I’ve connected with as instinctively and automatically as Laurie Penny. This book is witty, poignant, passionate, and stunningly well-written; I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s without a doubt one of my favorite books of all time.
1. And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts, is totally cheating – I haven’t finished it yet. It’s a history of the AIDS epidemic from 1980 to 1985; it was published in 1987, and written by a gay journalist working for the San Francisco Chronicle who himself died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. Reading this book, I’m stunned that it’s almost entirely information I didn’t know before. Almost all the education I’ve received about AIDS was scientific and medical, and while I’m incredibly grateful to have gone to a school with an excellent sex education program that taught me how AIDS worked and how to have safe sex, I can’t believe that the history of the political maneuvering, homophobia, and incompetence that contributed to the epidemic was never taught to me in schools. This is in part selfish: as an LGBT person, I feel like I’ve been cheated of one of the most significant parts of my community’s history. I’ll likely be writing more about And the Band Played On, as well as recommending it to all my queer and straight friends.
Top 5 Short Story Collections
5. Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford, is only a short story collection in a loose sense of the phrase; the stories in it are all very closely connected, and they’re not quite “short stories” so much as “slightly fictionalized and narrativized historical essays”. Red Plenty is a history of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death, focusing mostly on the 1960s – it’s where I got the recommendation for Little Golden America. It’s stunningly well-researched and an incredibly interesting read.
4. My Man Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, is another book that needs no description. The adventures of Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves are well-known to almost everyone (though my God, if you haven’t actually read a Jeeves story, please do so immediately) and I’m always struck by the quality of Wodehouse’s prose – the man could turn a phrase like absolutely no one else.
3. I Sing the Body Electric!, by Ray Bradbury, is my Ray Bradbury short story collection of the year. I think at this point I’ve read roughly 80% of Bradbury’s body of work, and every time I track down a Bradbury short story I haven’t read before, it’s like Christmas and twelve birthdays all rolled into one. Out of principle I don’t have a Favorite Writer, but if I did, Bradbury would be a strong contender for the title.
2. Pretty Monsters, by Kelly Link, is a collection I’ve read about five times at this point. Kelly Link is a creepy, imaginative, emotional, and very weird writer; her novella Magic for Beginners, included in Pretty Monsters, has images and themes that have been circling in my head like goldfish in a bowl ever since I read it for the first time, six or seven years ago.
1. Battleborn, by Claire Vaye Watkins, is secretly my fave for fairly self-centered reasons: it’s another book that centers California and the American West, and writes its setting with vividness, honesty, careful attention to detail, and emotion. Many people who know me know my love for what I call, for lack of a better term, “southwestern gothic”; Battleborn is southwestern gothic at its best.
Top 5 Fiction Books
5. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, appealed very specifically to my etymologist heart: the way Junot Diaz uses words, both in English and in Spanish, is incredibly masterful and skilled. Oscar Wao is another book that’s received more than enough hype already; it takes readers from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic, and from 1955 to 1997, using brilliant prose and incredibly imaginative characterization. It’s absolutely worth a read.
4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson, has also received plenty of praise from various sources already. There’s a whole essay to be written about the idea of Lisbeth Salander as a power fantasy; while reading the sequels, it was hard for me not to compare her to heroes like Batman, another character with a dark past who combines fairly emotionally unhealthy behavior and black-and-white morality with extraordinary superpowers. It’s hard for me to recall a female hero of whom I’ve been able to say, “Wow, she’s not a good person, but I really wanna be her.” I’m glad Lisbeth Salander exists.
3. House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski – okay, okay, I can’t seem to put anything on my top 5 fiction list that hasn’t already gotten hyped up already. There’s really nothing I can say about House of Leaves except that it’s the most convincing argument for the continued existence of physical books that I can imagine, and that if you read it, I’d love to talk about it.
2. His Majesty’s Dragon, by Naomi Novik, has not been hyped up by a hundred sources and so I’m very pleased to recommend it. It’s a fantasy series – I’ve been reading fewer and fewer long fantasy series since I turned thirteen, but it’s nice to know that my SFF nerd days aren’t quite over – and it can be best described as “sort of like Master and Commander, but also there are dragons.” It has far and away the best worldbuilding I’ve ever seen (and this is coming from someone raised on Lord of the Rings, so please take that declaration very seriously), as well as spectacular characterization and incredibly gripping and imaginative storytelling. Peter Jackson might make a miniseries!
1. Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, I know this is a play and not a book, I don’t care, I know I’ve read it three or four times already, I don’t care, I have nothing to say about Angels in America that I haven’t already said about Angels in America, I care about Angels in America more than absolutely anything in the world except maybe Hamlet. Have you read Angels in America? Please read Angels in America.
It was a good year in terms of books: I read 103 total and enjoyed the hell out of almost all of them. Here’s the full list under the cut, in alphabetical order by title: