Monday, July 27, 2015

Go Set a Watchman

Jean Louise Finch, AKA Scout, returned to Maycomb County, Alabama, for her annual summer visit and it doesn’t take her long to scandalize the place.  Aunty Alexandra is aghast over the gossip flying around town that Jean Louise and childhood sweetheart, Hank, went skinny-dipping at Finch’s Landing.  Atticus Finch, now in his seventies and plagued by arthritis, with his fabled even demeanor, observes that her dress is wrinkled from recently drying.  After church Atticus and Hank head for downtown to attend the Citizens’ Council meeting.  Jean Louise is dumbstruck.  She sneaks into the colored loft of the courthouse, as she had done so many times, and eavesdrops on the proceedings.  Dumbstruck turns to horrorstruck when she hears the rantings of a white supremacist who her father had just introduced.  The turmoil  of the birth of the civil rights era is Scout’s coming of age moment and not in any happy way.

If Harper Lee were not a great writer she should still win acclaim for choosing great titles.  Go Set a Watchman is of course the long lost sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, but it is not quite on par with that sixty-year-old classic.  Although oozing with wisdom and elegant phrasing, some parts are dense and obtuse.  I found myself rereading passages, and more than once, failing to grasp the intent of the words.  A few sentences I just did not understand at all.  Whereas To Kill a Mockingbird is written in first person, Go Set a Watchman is an odd mix of all three persons, sometimes within a single paragraph.  This reader, at least, has the impression that this manuscript was rushed to publication and that it would benefit from more judicious editing.  Nevertheless, it is a vital piece of work not to be missed.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Flashman and Madison's War

Captain Thomas Flashman was a self-confessed coward.  He unwittingly found himself fighting the upstart Americans alongside of Iroquois warriors on the Canadian side of the Great Lakes during the war of 1812—Madison’s War.  Although cowardly, Flashman was cunning and managed to present himself in a good light to superior officers.  This has the unfortunate effect of keeping him on the front lines.  While trying to prevent an enraged warrior from cleaving his skull with a tomahawk, he accidentally converts the savage Indian into a faithful friend who watches his back and spares him from numerous life threatening encounters.  Simultaneously the tide of the war in America turned against the British and the European conflict with France suddenly ended.  This happy news meant that Continental troops would soon relieve the beleaguered British forces in Canada.  Flashman saw a route home to England.  But his hopes were cruelly dashed and he returned to the solace of the Mennonite girl who he rescued from an abusive husband more than twice her age.

Flashman and Madison’s War is an easygoing book that I originally branded as slow, but I persevered and soon fell into the story’s pace.  The character Flashman is an engaging creation who will set his own hook in reader’s interest.  His unabashed self-assessment that he is a cowardly lying opportunist who wants nothing more than to stay alive and enjoy living to the fullest, quickly endears him to the reader.  Robert Brightwell has retold an obscure part of an obscure war from a British point of view with remarkable accuracy and detail through the eyes of a fictional character with real charm.  This is the fifth installment in a series of Flashman’s memoirs.  It stands alone but some may prefer to start at the beginning.

120,000 Words
Price $3.99

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Happy 4th of July!