Ah, summer. Here at the Swellesley Report we’ve done the requisite family vacation from which we needed a vacation and have settled into the summer reading portion of the season. Here are reviews of four of the books we’ve gotten through so far…
Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee
Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher, Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2015
I suppose it was nice to catch up on the doings of a 26-year old Scout, and Jem, and Atticus. It was fun to see one of the Cunningham boys working an ice-cream stand he owns, and it was unsurprising that Aunt Alexandra was the same fractious, nit-picking, bane of Scout’s existence she always was. It was good to see Calpurnia, and if we are surprised by that side of her heart that she hid from us nice, white folks, well then we really should look into our own hearts and ask ourselves why her anger would surprise us.
But the book itself. Well, if you’re going to read it, don’t do it because you’re expecting the greatness of To Kill a Mockingbird. Read it because you loved Mockingbird, and all its characters, and the understanding it gave you about a certain type of place, in a certain sort of time, back in the early 1930s. Read it for old time’s sake, or to witness the process of a writer, or just because you think everybody else is reading it.
And keep in mind, Lee didn’t want Go Set a Watchman, completed in 1957, published. It was just a first try. From it grew the real story, To Kill a Mockingbird, published in 1960. This matters because in Watchman you can see Lee break the first rule for fiction writers — show don’t tell. This is a rule that Lee does not grasp in Watchman, instead making Uncle Jack her mouthpiece who tells us all How The South Works. And poor Uncle Jack is made to seem rather tiresome with all that explaining.
It’s not until Mockingbird that Lee figures out how to show us all How The South Works through the story of Tom Robinson, a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman, who doesn’t have a righteous chance in heaven of beating the rap. Through his story, Lee captures all the hate, and fear, and wrong-headed determination during what she presents as one hot summer down South but that really serves as a metaphor for one hot era nationwide. Lee does this in Mockingbird while also showing us the inner workings of childhood, and how neighbors care, and how humans somehow live together and create what looks like a functional society together while parceling out evil to certain among them.
A theme that runs true through both books is that in Maycomb, Alabama, by using what looks to the strong like logic and common sense, but looks to the powerless like the world in a fun-house mirror that ain’t no fun, in a society that isn’t exactly functioning for them, the mores of a dysfunctional society are upheld.
In Watchman, as in Mockingbird, secrets come out in court, or on the street, or in the parlor. In Watchman, it’s just done with the less deft hand of a writer who was working on her craft and, by the time she finished that manuscript, judged herself not quite there yet. As readers, let us not judge the work she herself shelved any more harshly than that.
In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume
Hardcover, 416 pages
Publisher, Knopf, 2015
It is a testimony to Judy Blume’s power as an author (or maybe the power of her marketing firm) that her latest book, In the Unlikely Event, a story based on actual events about not just one, but a series of plane crashes, can be aggressively marketed in airports. I’ve spent a little time waiting around for planes this summer, and as I wandered bookstores while waiting for flights, I couldn’t believe that in a place where the person standing next to you would undoubtedly call security over to drag you away if you so much as whispered the words “plane crash” this book about the topic was absolutely everywhere.
That weirdness aside, as a lifelong Judy Blume reader and someone who doesn’t dwell on the worst-case scenarios of air travel, I can say go ahead and pick this one up. You remember Judy Blume, for sure. She’s written classics such as Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, Forever, Wifey, The Fudge series, and Summer Sisters, to name just a few of this prolific author’s titles.
Set in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the early 1950s, in In the Unlikely Event, Blume creates characters whose lives change almost as quickly as the lives of the crash victims’ end. As the community is faced with plane crash after plane crash, raining down horror, destruction, and death on the town, the people of Elizabeth focus their anger on Newark Airport, demanding that it be permanently closed. The reader, looking from above it all, so to speak, is in a better position to realize that it isn’t about the airport, it’s about the planes themselves. The only voice speaking out about the emperor’s lack of clothes is that of the young journalist covering the events. He notes that “The initial findings in the probe of the…crash…point to a sharp, almost vertical drop of the plane. When it was noted that this must have resulted from a radical equipment breakdown, [the] chief investigator…said he was not yet ready to draw any conclusions.”
Nor was the chief investigator yet ready to draw air traffic away from Newark Airport, or draw potentially faulty planes out of the air for rigorous inspections. Unsurprisingly, this lack of action leads to no lack of further tragedy.
“Life goes on,” says one of the characters, mantra-like. And indeed, as the planes take off and land and sometimes crash, so follow the lives of the many characters. In classic Blume style, characters make plans, and God laughs. While that’s going on, they also help strangers in the most miraculous and life-saving ways, then hurt the ones they love in the most callous and self-serving manners.
Blume will make you feel the very soul of a certain type of place in a certain sort of time back in the 1950s. The character list is long, and that’s one of the pluses of the books. You get to know the lot of them, feel for them, and be shocked by them. It’s summer reading because if you’ve read Judy Blume, you’re visiting an old friend. And if you haven’t, maybe it’s time to make a new friend.
Beach Town, Mary Kay Andrews
Hardcover, 448 pages. Publisher, St. Martin’s Press, 2015
This is the beachiest of the summer reading books I’ll brief you on. It’s literal beach right from the get-go, set in a Florida coastal town that Greer Hennessy, a movie locations scout, has been sent out to find. She’s been ordered to discover a place that’s got character, and not of the Disney variety, thank you very much. It’s got to have patina. It’s got to be remote so the star, a dead ringer for bad boy Justin Bieber, right down to his self-absorbed posing, can work without distractions. Oh, and by the way, it’s got to have an old, venerable structure, suitable for blowing up. Tell the locals not to worry, the director tells Greer, Hollywood money will keep them all happy.
The beleaguered Greer, toiling away at a job that isn’t half as glamorous as it sounds, and forced to molly-coddle, cajole, and fetch and carry for everyone from the big star to the local gentry, manages to sneak in a little fun for herself here and there. Where it all leads, I’ll let you find out for yourself when you visit this corner of old Florida through the pages of Beach Town.
Mireille, Molly Cochran
Paperback, 573 pages
Publisher, Lake Union Publishing, 2015
The book jacket tells me that some women are born knowing how the world works. Since I am not one of those women, I figured I could approach this book as a how-to, sort of like some self-help reading for the summer. Perhaps Mireille, the enigmatic, sexy French protagonist who beguiles men and eclipses other women at every turn, could inspire me to take my eager, multi-tasking American personality and smooth it into something more like her practical, calm-cool-and-collected, subtle, self.
Alas, as I read on I realized this wouldn’t be the case. Not that I couldn’t possibly have anything to learn from a high-priced call girl, turned movie star, turned mother, turned that’s all I dare give away, but the gap between us turned out to be too wide. C’est la vie, on with the review.
Set near the end of World War II, Mireille enters “The Life,” as the sex-industry is referred to, out of desperation after she escapes the advances of her lecherous, Nazi-loving stepfather and then the grabbing hands of a stranger who sees her vulnerability on the streets. A brief, true-love affair leaves her pregnant and alone. After giving birth and being granted a brief respite at the hands of kind strangers, she finally gives in to the type of demand she’s received ever since she turned 12, except this one is framed more as an offer. A very financially lucrative offer. Desperate to provide for her infant daughter, she takes on the working-girl persona of l’Ange (the Angel), a haughty ice-queen who melts only for those willing to pay the astronomical sums her madam demands.
Eventually, an American film producer avails himself of her infamous services, sees a certain star quality in her, then gives her the old “baby, I’m going to make you a star,” line. He actually makes good on that promise, but doesn’t mention that along with all the perks of becoming a movie star comes all the persecution of being controlled completely by a man who skirts closer and closer to the line of extreme danger, taking Mireille with him.
Mireille struggles to erase her history in The Life, extricate herself from her control-freak producer, and grab the true love that is so close and yet so far. As she does so, there was one violent scene that gave me serious pause, leaving me to wonder if there was an ending happy enough to erase the image from my mind. But Mireille’s a survivor, and if she could carry on, then I could read on.
Here’s to revenge, and comeuppance, and true love, and finding family, and forgiveness. Mireille is a beach read for those who have had enough of complete fluff by this point in the summer and are ready for something well-paced with a bit of a dark side.
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