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Archive for December, 2007

Review: To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

December 29, 2007 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
Winner of the 1961 Pulitzer Prize for Literature
Fiction, 323 pages
Harper Collins Publishers (2006)

Read as part of the Pulitzer Project.

Initially, I was introduced to Harper Lee’s novel through the 1962 movie starring Gregory Peck. However, I had never read the book. As I wanted this reading to be as fresh as possible, I made it a point not to read anything about the book: reviews, criticisms – nothing. I wanted any impressions made, to be my own. Not until finishing did I consult other reviews and study guides.

The amount of information available was absolutely overwhelming. But it was all someone else’s opinions, and this review is supposed to be about my own. Once I had divested myself of any preconceived notions and others pronouncements, I finally had a clearer idea of what my impressions really are about the novel.

Miss Lee has created a story that not only projects a strong theme of ethics and morals, but also contains subtle undercurrents of courage and prejudice (of class as well as race), which she has woven brilliantly throughout the narrative. There is also the loss of childhood innocence, which is a bittersweet moment. But it must come, and Miss Lee handles it eloquently and with respect. Yes, the lesson is instilled through tragedy, but with dignity, and this is what struck me so profoundly about the novel.

To Kill A Mockingbird is separated into two parts, yet they work together to illustrate the consequences of ignorance and prejudice. Strengthening the theme along the way is the character of Atticus Finch. He is the embodiment of moral rectitude; remaining constant and true, a physical reminder to his children and community that “right action and the greater good” are what makes up a person’s dignity – not their social standing, skin color, or economic status.

His children Jem and Scout, as well as their friend Dill, are exposed to situations which test their own understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. Part of this learning experience is seeing how people of strong moral character (Atticus) and those with little or none (Bob Ewell) react to circumstances into which they are thrust unwillingly. Both men are faced with a choice: do the right thing knowing full well that it will possibly mean losing the respect of friends, family, and community, or take the easier path of denying your own morality at the cost of dignity. As Atticus states, “…before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

In addition to this lesson about dignity, another is of courage. Sometimes the right choice is the hardest, and doesn’t always lead to victory. Courage is being able to face the inevitable, even if you know from the beginning, it is a lost cause. Here is where Miss Lee’s brilliance shines. It isn’t enough to have Atticus as a role model; she has each child learn this harsh truth through personal experiences. In one of the more poignant passages in the book, Atticus explains to Jem what real courage is, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

One thing that surprised me the most about this book was the amount of controversy surrounding it, even to this day. But the reader must remember that the setting and tone of the novel accurately depicts others beliefs and behaviors in 1935 Alabama. How are we to understand this unless one gets into the mindset of its people and the harshness of its environment?

It was not a politically correct period in American History; therefore politically correct sensibilities must be set aside when reading this book.

In this novel, as in life, the goodness of men is always tempered with its opposite. The simple fact is that human nature is made up of the capacity to be ultimately kind or horrifyingly evil. But when the evil in us is faced with dignity, grace, and courage, it can be overcome.

I give this book 5 stars with the simple advisement that one take into consideration the language and subject matter and rise above it, for its message is much more important than the words used to convey it.

Christmas Lit

December 09, 2007 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews

Lit as in literature, but also as in ‘lit’ which is from light, “something that makes things visible or affords illumination” ( Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc.)

Which stories illuminate, or make visible, the Christmas spirit? Which tug at your conscience as well as your heart? Which pieces of literature evoke the true spirit of Christmas?

Here are a few of my favorites, and why:

  1. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus by Francis P. Church
    Virginia O’Hanlon was only eight years old when she wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Sun wanting to know if her friends were right – that there is no Santa Claus. Church, who was the lead editorial writer at the time, responded with what has become the most reprinted editorial in history. His words provide more than just a simple answer regarding the existence of Santa Claus; they address the deeper issue of “skepticism,” and the “supernal beauty” of childhood innocence. As he so eloquently notes, “The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.”

  2. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
    Dickens originally titled this work, A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. From the start, the reader learns that this is no ordinary tale of Christmas. Dickens begins his novel with the following lines:
    “Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.”

    Dickens quickly sets the tone for his ‘ghost story of Christmas’. But his ‘ghosts’ are not necessarily what they appear to be. Each is not only symbolic of an aspect of Christmas, but of a man’s life, and how the choices he has made affect what kind of person he has become. Circumstances in life can turn us into contemptuous misers, not only of our money; but also of compassion and kindness. A Christmas Carol is a wake-up call to let us know that it is never too late to change, and that what we offer to others improves us, as much as it does them.

  3. How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas by Dr Seuss
    Yes, this is a children’s story, but any fan of Dr. Seuss will tell you that each of his stories holds a certain fascination for everyone, including adults. The Grinch absolutely hates the “noise, noise, noise” and incessant singing which erupts every Christmas in Who-ville. In order to put an end to such rude revelry, he concocts a scheme to “prevent Christmas from coming”. Believing it a materialistic holiday (sound familiar), he plans to steal all of the Whos decorations, presents, and trees. If he can remove any physical semblance of the dreaded holiday, then in what way can anyone, especially a Who, celebrate something that in every real sense, does not exist? However, he does not succeed:
    “And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow/ Stood puzzling and puzzling: ‘How could it be so?’/ ‘It came without ribbons! It came without tags!’/ ‘It came without packages, boxes or bags!’/ And he puzzled three hours,till his puzzler was sore./ Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!/ ‘Maybe Christmas,’ he thought, ‘doesn’t come from a store.’/ ‘Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!’

    This touched the Grinch – literally. According to those in Who-ville, “the Grinch’s small heart/ Grew three sizes that day!” How many of us look at Christmas with a heart three sizes too small? Is the true spirit of Christmas that which is only evidenced by the sight of decorated trees with an abundance of presents underneath? Who-ville awoke that morning, with nothing. No ribbons, no tags, no boxes, or bags. It didn’t matter. They had each other. What better gift than the one in which you share yourself, your joy, and your heart. That, the Grinch learned, is the true spirit of Christmas.

  4. The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
    In this story, O. Henry ‘illuminates’ how the selfless act of sacrifice is one of the wisest gifts of all. Here are two people who literally have nothing to give, except for the love that they feel for each other. Love has been, and should be, enough for Della and Jim. But what is Christmas without giving something of yourself, even if it is only a token, to the person who means the world to you? Unwittingly, each sacrifices the one thing they own of any value, to buy the other a simple adornment for that item which neither now possesses. On the surface, it would seem tragic that their Christmas comes with the realization that each has sacrificed in vain. But it is not. How many times in your life have you heard, ‘It is not the gift that counts, but the thought behind it’? Here is that sentiment personified in the story of Della and Jim. As Henry writes, “But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.” Why? Because the gift they gave was love, and the knowledge that there is no sacrifice too great. Neither Jim nor Della can look at each other and doubt, in any way, what matters most in their lives.

Review: Dracula by Bram Stoker

December 04, 2007 By: J.C. Montgomery Category: Reviews

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)
Barnes & Noble Classics Series (2003)
Fiction, 461 pages

I recently finished Dracula by Bram Stoker. I made it a little easier on myself by purchasing the Barnes & Noble Classics edition, which has an introduction and notes by book critic Brooke Allen. It was a good decision, as the introduction was very helpful in setting the stage for a more insightful reading.

I am not sure what my original intent was when I took this book from the shelf, but after reading Brooke Allen’s forward I was determined (as she suggests) to “try to peel away the layers of preconception” and to “let the novel stand on its own”. Thus I tried to put out of my mind interpretations of repressed sexuality, Christian mythology, and feminism issues. I simply read it as a novel written for a late nineteenth century audience, who at the time, was struggling with the growing pains that came with modernization.

Even though much scientific advancement had been made by the time Dracula was written, there were still those who clung to old beliefs and folklore. Superstition is deeply rooted within human nature. Primeval fears remain, even though the mind may be well educated and rational. Bram Stoker seemed to have understood this as his characters act, and react, based upon events which they could not rationalize away easily, but eventually accept regardless of what logic tells them. This is why Dr. Van Helsing insists that the other men come with him to the crypt, to not simply see for themselves, but to experience the truth surrounding the mystery of Lucy’s death. In order to overcome their disbelief and fears of the unknown, each character had to believe that there was a factual basis to Dr. Van Helsing’s outrageous claims. Actually participating in the act of killing a vampire was the only way each would be able to open their minds to another ‘reality’. (It is interesting to note that these men probably thought themselves ‘enlightened’ because of their knowledge and education, yet that same intelligence actually limited them.)

Once they embraced this new sensibility (reality), they were ready to face and conquer their ‘demon’. Van Helsing understands the importance of accepting the fact that even in modern times, there are aspects of a culture that must work with science, not against it. As he explains, “All we have to go on are traditions and superstitions. These do not at the first appear much…Yet must we be satisfied…Does not the belief in vampires rest…on them [tradition and superstition]? A year ago which of us would have received such a possibility, in the midst of our scientific, matter-of-fact nineteenth century?” He is telling them, in his own eloquent way that the acceptance of these old world beliefs allow them to not only believe that Dracula is real; he can be defeated by understanding how his own superstitions will work against him.

At the end of the nineteenth century, many of the old beliefs and traditions were quickly fading away and being replaced with modern, scientific sensibilities. In this novel, Stoker succeeds in reconciling old world tradition with new world technology in a way that demonstrates that this seemingly irresolvable dichotomy can actually work together for a greater good. Faith does not have to die in order for science to live – you can have both.

This book is a must have for any home library, however it is one that cannot be read in a single seating. Written in the late nineteenth century, its style and vocabulary will challenge some readers. For this reason I am giving it 3 Stars.


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