Monday, 16 December 2013

The Bookcase Of Fear #4: To Kill A Mockingbird (and some others)

To Kill A Mockingbird
By Harper Lee

The front cover of To Kill A Mockingbird (my copy, at least) is a statement.  Black.  The title and the name of the author in simple print.  A vague doodle of a mockingbird, plus a note: Pulitzer Prize Winner over 30,000,000 sold.  What more do you need?  Why put extraneous effort into selling a thing that is about as officially "good" as it gets?  (Of course, it might just be an inexpensive edition.  But I like my theory better.)

The book's reputation precedes it, but still, famous as it is, I didn't know the ins and outs of the story.  I knew the theme racism and injustice and had an inkling there'd be a court-case, possibly over a rape or a murder.  It's rare and gratifying to remain otherwise spoiler-free on something so famous.  (I recently had the same pleasure reading Great Expectations.  Never read it before, never saw the movie.  Not much chance of that with Oliver Twist.)  As it happens, a well-meaning friend told me how Mockingbird ended as I read it – oddly, they remembered it wrong and spoiled nothing.  (EDIT: Turns out I misread their comment, so it wasn't the spoiler I thought it was.  D'oh!  Apologies...)  I spent the rest of the book expecting one outcome, and when the opposite occurred, I literally gasped.  This doesn't happen often when I read.  I suspect that, with or without the dodgy spoiler, this makes potent reading.

I almost don't want to discuss the plot, as there might be others like me who don't know it.  Suffice to say, a black man is accused of raping a white woman; his attorney is Atticus Finch, serious and straight-talking father of two, and probably the most level-headed person in Maycomb.  Finch is one of the most wonderful characters I've ever come across.  His relationship with Scout and Jem (his daughter and son) is beautifully handled – their habit of calling him "Atticus" (never any variation of "Dad"), and his policy of absolute honesty with them, makes the family feel real.

The book is told from Scout's point of view, which is a masterstroke.  The court-case is the crux of the plot, but it's only on Scout's periphery.  This is a clever way to handle what could have been a simple courtroom drama: the town folks' foibles, the dramatic twists, and the issues Lee wishes to examine are all seen through Scout's inimitable perspective.  A great way to ground what could have been a dry, even obvious look at racism.  Contrary to its serious themes, Mockingbird is an often fun, funny, delightful book, and much of this has to do with the observations of the unselfconscious tomboy, Scout.

The book's stance on racism is well-known enough for me not to go on about it.  (Pulitzer Prize, 30,000,000 sold, book and film both appear on a lot of Best Ever lists.)  As a plea for racial tolerance, it's honest and realistic; Lee doesn't ultimately believe these problems will go away overnight, even with guys like Atticus Finch on the case.  But it's also important to appreciate this book as a story, and it's a rich, well-told, frequently poignant one, numerous passages and phrases having passed deservedly into fame.  I'll be reading it again some day.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea
By Jules Verne

Another one of those famous classics I've been meaning to read, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea sounds like a rollicking adventure. It is and it isn't.

We begin with men on a mission: a mysterious something has been sinking ships, an expedition is afoot to capture it.  Professor Aronnax is brought along to identify it; his dutiful manservant Conseil and Canadian whaler Ned Land come too.  The monster is, in reality, the submarine Nautilus.  Our three heroes are captured by its mysterious Captain Nemo, who keeps them captive on his trip around the world.  (Just to clear up a particularly stupid misconception of mine, they travel twenty thousand leagues in the ocean.  They don't go twenty thousand leagues down, as that's impossible.  You know, a more accurate title would have been Twenty Thousand Leagues Around The World Under The Sea...)

This voyage allows Jules Verne's imagination to run riot.  Aronnax and co. see amazing sights, such as Atlantis, the North Pole, and innumerable wrecked ships.  It's an often thrilling adventure, particularly a moment when the crew face sharks in hand-to-hand combat (!).  But it's too long, and filled to bursting with obsessively tedious cataloguing of every single marine organism the Nautilus encounters.  I can't stress enough how boring this is.  It became such an issue slogging through these passages that I began skipping entire paragraphs, and eventually pages that began with "As for mollusks" or "As for zoophytes".  I can't imagine anyone but a marine biologist having room in their head for this amount of raw list-making data, and none of it progresses the story one iota.  (A more accurate title might have been Twenty Thousand Different Kinds Of Fish.)

This (at times, excruciating) need to identify and describe every single thing Professor Aronnax is looking at highlights one of the book's major problems: it is entirely episodic, and not really going anywhere.  Ned Land wants to escape from the Nautilus.  The Professor is quite happy to stay and catalogue marine life.  Loyal Conseil is happy as long as the Professor's happy.  So two thirds of this group just aren't all that bothered about regaining their freedom.  Months pass, some of it apparently in real-time, while the crew make notes of (and invariably, eat) every living thing in their path.  Nemo's stance on marine life is a little unclear, just as a few of Verne's ideas appear a little outdated: sperm whales are painted as vicious monsters, and Nemo seems entirely subjective about which animals it's okay to slaughter for his larder.  (A more accurate title might have been Twenty Thousand Exotic Fish Recipes.)  A great many fish seem curious about the Nautilus and swim beside it.  I wanted to yell, "Run!"

Like Mockingbird, I didn't know too much about Twenty Thousand Leagues: I only knew there'd be a battle with a giant squid.  There are myriad references to shipwrecks, which led me to think "Ah, that'll be the squid, this is going somewhere."  It isn't.  Eventually they encounter some squids, then they go away.  I'm guessing the movie exaggerated, but that particular sequence is a disappointment.  Also, I'm going to spoil something now to save you any disappointment: despite endless references to the mystery of Captain Nemo and his troubled, anti-heroic past, there are no answers at all in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea.  Verne wrote a sequel, The Mysterious Island, which apparently delves into Nemo's past.  If that means another 400 pages of zoophytes and mollusks, I think I'll stick to Wikipedia.

When this is good, it is thrillingly so.  At its best I was reminded of other fantastic voyages (like Conan Doyle's The Lost World, a book I adore, and H. Rider Haggard's She).  At its worst, I was reminded that Jules Verne probably did a considerable amount of research before writing the book, and yes, he'd like you to know about it.

Doctor Who: The Missing Adventures
The Shadow Of Weng-Chiang
By David A. McIntee

Sequels are a tricky business, especially when they follow something popular. (Which, really, all sequels do.)  Author David A. McIntee says here, "No one in their right mind would even suggest a sequel to The Talons Of Weng-Chiang, which is why [I] volunteered instead."  To his credit, his book doesn't try to copy that fan-favourite Doctor Who story, very much telling its own tale in its own style.  But it is arguably less effective on both counts.

Shadow concerns a group of Chinese mercenaries (circa 1937) trying to recreate the time travelling villainy of Magnus Greel.  (The Weng-Chiang of the title.)  Shedloads of historical research has gone into it: you're never far from some detail about how things looked and worked, or what the political climate was like.  It's impressively thorough.  The characters are similarly well-rounded, to the point where McIntee's sympathies seemingly lie with all of them.  The villain, beautiful and ageless Hsien-Ko, has her reasons.  Her violent lieutenant loves her, and wants to spare her the grief of killing.  Her enemies include Lee, a policeman with a dupicitous past, and Wong, a man with a double-life as a vigilante crime-fighter and nightclub-owner.  Everyone has a secret agenda, families to consider, and so on.  It gets a little muddled trying to figure everyone out.  The absence of a strong villain (as Magnus Greel stays fittingly in the shadows) dampens the tension quite a bit, although a monster from Talons, murderous ventriloquist dummy Mr Sin, steals the show.

McIntee has a good ear for the Fourth Doctor and Romana, but as they're among the more confident and indomitable TARDIS teams (armed with K9, who can zap anyone into submission), they never seem to be in any real danger.  At least they're never less than entertaining something Tom Baker and Mary Tamm always guaranteed.

A book of thoughtful detail that does not simply retread the original Gothic masterpiece, this is a diverting action-adventure, but isn't without its problems.  The climax is big on technobabble and small on simple, compelling threat; we stay away from the creepy atmosphere of Talons, but Shadow tries a little too hard to avoid it and is rarely creepy at all, which is not what I wanted; heartening as it is to consider every character's feelings, it does makes a good vs evil struggle rather harder to pull off; and as I discovered reading Twenty Thousand Leagues, there's only so much historical research you can do before you're in danger of using fiction just to join the dots.  But, grumbling aside, it's an often exciting story.

By Terry Pratchett

One of roughly a million Terry Pratchett books I had yet to read, Thud! is among the more recent (and to my mind, more mature) Discworld stories, touching on racial tension via the amusing medium of dwarfs and trolls: they've never been able to stand each other due to a historic misunderstanding no one can clearly remember.  It's a Sam Vimes novel – that's the head of Ankh-Morpork's police force, The Watch – and Vimes must solve a dwarf's murder whilst also being a good dad to his very young son.

I've previously found Vimes one of Pratchett's more archetypal (and therefore, boring) heroes.  He's old, had much Hard Knocks schooling, and is generally wiser than anybody else.  See also, Granny Weatherwax.  Basically he's in danger of being too good at his job to remain interesting – it's nice to have a little honest incompetence, and just what happened to Rincewind, anyway? – but Thud! keeps him interesting with the problem of keeping his son happy, and juggling the ever-irritating responsibilities of being part of Ankh-Morpork nobility.  Vimes, and the rest of his beloved Watch, are vivid fun to be around.  I'm looking forward to the next Watch book.

Pratchett deals with racism with a light touch – which is to say, if this wasn't set in a fantasy realm, schoolteachers would probably take it quite seriously.  Just having plenty to say on the subject of age-old prejudices doesn't make it a worthy or serious book, however.  It's as compulsively readable (and fun) as Pratchett's best, and manages to say things without hitting you over the head with them.  (Although characters do frequently hit each other over the head.  There are a lot of trolls, after all.)

The only real downer for me was the ending: as Vimes is possessed by a weird "darkness" pervading the city, and does its bidding, everything goes a bit metaphysical and illusory, in that how-much-of-it-really-happened way usually associated with dream sequences.  As the all-important conclusion, this didn't especially satisfy me.  But it's one of the book's very few bum notes.  I'd recommend the rest.

Casino Royale
By Ian Fleming

Right, then.  James Bond.  He's not an especially nice or interesting person – something exacerbated by his various film personae, who rely on how charming or flippant they are to distract from his basic bastardliness.  He's paid to spy and kill people, and he has absolutely nothing else in his life.  Unsurprisingly in Casino Royale, the first Bond novel, it's characters other than Bond who caught my attention.  His chipper French friend Renée Mathis, and American counterpart Felix Leiter, both hold court better than he does.  Bond is just a man doing a job.

But there's an understated poignancy to him, a sad addiction to work and routine, touched on (at least) in the recent film adaptation.  He's solitary and dogged.  Also, good at Poker, which is largely the reason he got this job.  (Incidentally, Casino Royale comes close to making me understand how Poker works.  Close, but no cigar.)

Fleming's misanthropic hero spends a surprising amount of time contemplating the morality of what he does.  Not something you'd expect from Roger Moore and chums.  Also, while the infamous torture scene does elicit a wince, what's surprising is the amount of time it takes Bond to recover.  He almost doesn't.  He's no superman after all, and unlike most of the films (sorry!), he does fall in love. 

I'd be interested to see what the subsequent books are like.  Does Bond turn into a soulless caricature, or was that the films' fault?  Whatever happened afterwards, Casino Royale is a well-told thriller and it has aged well.  The 2006 film added a lot to the start, but the story didn't change very much.  That's a bit of a rarity, and a good sign.

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