Don’t Set a Watchman

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The best thing I can say about Go Set a Watchman is that no one will ever accuse it of being written by Truman Capote.

For those living in a cave, Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, the book that popularized the “white people end racism” narrative so maligned in The Help but still celebrated in To Kill a Mockingbird. However, it isn’t exactly a sequel. The alleged story is that Harper Lee wrote this book first, and it was rejected by publishers.

These publishers were right. Go Set a Watchman is a terrible book. The book is difficult to review because it was never meant to be published. Today, it is more of a historical document than a novel. As a readable novel, Go Set a Watchman fails miserably.

*spoilers abound, y’all*

This initial effort by Harper Lee lacks the personality, humor, rich description, and gift of dialog present in To Kill a Mockingbird. Go Set a Watchman is in the same league as sub-par YA fiction today. Its 26-year-old Jean Louise “Scout” Finch is incredibly selfish, obnoxious, and charmless, i.e. in her twenties. Plot is non-existent. Any attempts at humor fall flat. The writing is often scattered and confusing, slipping clumsily between 3rd- and 1st-person, past- and present-tense. And while a lack of continuity with Mockingbird is forgivable, lack of continuity within the book itself is not.

Michiko Kakutani called the book “lumpy,” the only comment on the actual writing in her non-review. Kakutani likely takes it easy on Lee because Lee had no agency in publishing this book, and is probably being taken advantage of with its publication. However, she did write this book. And as a result, we are given this new insight into her thoughts and her writing. It is hard to believe that someone could start with this incoherent amateur effort and craft the polished To Kill a Mockingbird in two years. Lee must have had a hell of an editor for Mockingbird, while this book, clearly, did not.

Here is the entire plot of Go Set a Watchman: Jean Louise “Scout” Finch learns her father is not who she thought he was. They argue. She decides to accept him anyway. The end.

Padding this out are flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, focusing on Scout as a child. There is an anecdote about she and Jem (her now dead brother) and Dill, which are much more long-winded and boring than the childhood tales in Mockingbird. There is an anecdote about Scout’s fake boobs being thrown by her high school boyfriend onto a billboard. There is /nothing/ that actually characterizes Atticus Finch. The climax of the novel is the argument between Jean Louise and Atticus, but, not having the context of Mockingbird, Atticus is a completely flat character. We are only told how to feel about him, then we are told to feel differently. And while their conflict evolves from a difference in beliefs, it is how they affect Scout, not the ramifications of Atticus’ beliefs, that selfishly drive her motivation.

In present-day context, Go Set a Watchman works, barely, because we have To Kill a Mockingbird to characterize Atticus. And just as Scout learns that her father isn’t who she thought he was a child, we as (white) readers learn that To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t the book we thought it was when we were children. Or the book that I gave it the benefit of the doubt when I read it last week.

This brings us to the historical document part of the review. As To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards, this book’s, and the author’s, politics cannot be ignored. Here is the basic political message of Go Set a Watchman: Negroes are inferior to whites in every way, but that doesn’t mean they should be treated poorly!

The attitude of white superiority is evident in many ways (in fact, the characters state this point blank). One is Jean Louise’s disgusting comment to her uncle Jack that while she doesn’t think black people should be treated poorly, it’s not like she’ll marry a black man! Without using the phrase “jungle fever,” both characters talk about the “myth” that respectable whites would ever marry a black person. It’s only the trash who would do that, and the trash will never have power anyway, so interracial relationships are nothing to fear!

There is also Jean Louise’s frustration at Calpurnia for talking “black” and not talking “white.” Yes, the scene is a little more complicated than that, as Jean Louise’s true frustration is that Calpurnia is treating her, Jean Louise, like all the other uppity blacks treat respectable white folk, but the foundation of this is that Negroes are backward, and whites are superior. White girl policing a black woman’s dialect is also present in To Kill a Mockingbird.

This hateful racism is more concealed in To Kill a Mockingbird. By regressing into the past with Mockingbird, Lee’s thinking appears to have progressed. Casting the lead as a child gives a sense of learning and growth. But with the lead as a young adult, this confusion, these mixed messages, this baffling logic isn’t cute anymore, and the racism never is. It is front and center in Go Set a Watchman, because Watchman is set against the backdrop of the Supreme Court decision on Brown vs. Board of Education, which ended segregation. Mockingbird lives in a time of segregation, and it is happy with that.

noschoolflagAlthough Jean Louise has a slightly more progressive view than her father Atticus on the Negro dilemma, both Atticus and Jean Louise actively despise the NAACAP and believe that the Federal Government has no right to tell the states what to do. This was a volatile argument then, and a volatile argument right this second regarding the Supreme Court’s 2015 to legalize gay marriage. It is interesting to see this point of view in a fictional context. But the characters in this book are on the wrong side of history. And Harper Lee, while celebrated for being somewhat forward-thinking in 1961, comes across as completely backwards here.

The only interesting part of this book is the climax: the actual argument between Jean Louise and Atticus. However, the denouement ruins any impact this climactic battle may have had. In it, Jean Louise is slapped so violently by her uncle that her mouth bleeds. She learns that, as a young woman, she should respect the beliefs of elder white men. To not compromise with those who refuse to compromise, Jean Louise is a bigot. Her racist father, her racist aunt, are not bigots because they are right: whites are superior to Negroes.

This is a frustrating argument that still exists today, when religious fanatics who believe that their personal beliefs trump the human rights of others beg “tolerance.” Your hate is not to be tolerated. If any benefit comes from this book, it is to show us that we, as a society, have not evolved as much as we should have in the last fifty years.

It’s easy to forget that book was written in the 50s, because you can imagine these arguments still happening today. In its ending, which is tragic yet not written as a tragedy, Go Set a Watchman endorses undeserved tolerance and respect for hateful white people. Jean Louise concedes to tolerate her hateful relatives, and to respect them, simply because they are white people of good breeding. This book’s politics are myopic at best, hateful at worst. Those hateful people, and this book, deserve no respect. These people who believe hate in the name of religion, or heritage, or whatever reason hold back progress. And young people who behave as Jean Louise does at the end of this book are complicit in it. The fact that we still have these kinds of debates 60 years after this book was written proves it.

With these awful beliefs brought into stark relief, Go Set a Watchman puts the ending of To Kill a Mockingbird into a different light. In that book, Atticus tells Scout “Most people are [real nice], Scout, when you finally see them.” This line almost serves as an omen for the conclusion to Go Set a Watchman. Atticus is a terrible racist, but he’s a real nice racist, so we should respect him.

No.

Just as it’s hard to believe that Lee evolved by leaps and bounds a writer in two years, it’s even less probable to believe that she evolved into a humanist in that short period of time, either. Many people on the Internet are shocked that Atticus Finch has “changed.” In this way, the book works. The thing is, Atticus hasn’t actually changed. He always had these racist beliefs. But like Scout, many readers are too blinded by their holy regard for him that they ignored it, or didn’t see it. I, too, gave Atticus, and Harper Lee, the benefit of the doubt in To Kill a Mockingbird. I shouldn’t have.

grandpa flag

The book’s blurb says that Go Set a Watchman adds “depth, context, and new meaning to an American classic.” Oh, that it does. It emphasizes the hateful racism of that novel. Jean Louise/Scout is a Mary Sue for Harper Lee, who, while progressive at the time, is now stuck in the past. And since Harper Lee, by choice, never published anything else, she never showed us that her thinking evolved in any way over the last five decades. She is a relic like the Confederate Flag, to be preserved behind glass — not to be revered, but to show us where we came from, and how far we still have to go.


A friend referred me to this article by Jonathan Mahler in the New York Times. Mahler writes about Tay Hohoff, the editor who helped Lee between Watchman and Mockingbird. Hohoff is the ‘hell of an editor’ I assumed existed! A must-read story about a woman I never knew existed until yesterday.

“The Invisible Hand Behind Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird'”


[Flag designs from this excellent article on the Confederate Flag at Jezebel by CJ Hunt and Graham Cumberbatch. This review taken almost entirely from my Goodreads review, with minor edits.]

I’m an Author!

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At least, I am according to Amazon. This is funny because the only things I’ve had published have been in my own college literary journals, and those aren’t for sale on Amazon. But they still think I’m an author. Here’s how I know this.

I post a lot of my shorter reviews, mostly book reviews, to Amazon. My House of Holes review disappeared. I’ve talked about House of Holes here before. I just assumed that it went poof because of the content, although I was as clean as a person can possibly be when talking about a book called HOUSE OF HOLES, a book where a disembodied arm feels up a girl IN THE FIRST CHAPTER.

Anyway, it was an outlier. One of the only positive reviews for that book. So I was miffed my opinion was eradicated.

Then, my Ender’s Game review disappeared. My Ender’s Game review was not positive. I hate Ender’s Game.

Here’s the review from my Goodreads, which is basically what I copied to Amazon.

Ender's Game (Ender's Saga, #1)Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Ender’s Game is basically Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War but in space. Kids are mean! They beat each other up! The plot is virtually non-existent. Ender and co. bounce around in zero gravity for at least sixty pages, training in a banal combat game that doesn’t provide its participants with any useful skills (nor the reader with anything resembling entertainment) to fight the buggers, the stupidly named alien race that almost wiped out humanity decades ago and might wipe us out again. Or something. The majority of the bugger plot, the only remotely interesting plot point in the entire 324-page book, is crammed into the last two chapters.

Card’s writing style is dull and boring. He clumsily shifts between third- and first-person perspective for no good reason. He fails basic Writing 101: show the reader, don’t just tell. Valentine and Peter create online aliases for themselves: Locke and Desmosthenes. The two have lively Interweb discussions. Or at least Card says they do. Not a single article, post, or debate is actually written, so we have to take Card’s poorly written word for it. “They began composing debates for their characters. Valentine would prepare an opening statement, and Peter would invent a throwaway name to answer her. His answer would be intelligent, and the debate would be lively, lots of clever invective and political rhetoric. Valentine had a knack for alliteration that made her phrases memorable.” Perhaps if Card had the same knack for alliteration some of his phrases would be memorable. They’re not. The dialog is bad, the jokes aren’t funny, and the kids sometimes slip into a weird pidgin English when insulting each other. It doesn’t make sense.

Also, all the adults are Bad. “There is no teacher but the enemy,” one of Ender’s mentors tells him. Anti-authoritarianism can make great drama when it has purpose. This just sounds like the long-winded, non-sensical rebuttal of a bratty student who did poorly in school. Probably in his writing classes.

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My 1-star review was fairly divisive, with about 30 people saying it was “helpful” and slightly more saying it wasn’t. This review got the most feedback from any review I’ve posted on Amazon, besides my mostly positive Buffy Season 9 comic book review that prompted someone to post a review titled, “Chance Lee Is an Idiot”, which got deleted.

So, Ender’s Game. That review was deleted last month sometime. Now, this review had been up for almost two years. Wha’ happen? I e-mail Amazon and get this response:

We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. As a result, we’ve removed your reviews for this title.

Umm, how do I have a financial interest in this book? Even if I was a published author, it wouldn’t be in the whiny juvenile sub-genre of sci-fi bullshit. I asked for clarification, and received the exact same response, word for word, from their copy/paste customer service checklist, along with this addendum:

We will not be able to go into further detail about our research.

I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.

My one review doesn’t matter, and I doubt it affected sales of this book in any way. I just find its deletion weird, and wonder that if this is the actual reason, why are any of my reviews still up? 98% of them are for books. Will they eventually disappear? And how many other outlying reviews is Amazon deleting? Again, who cares? I’m just curious.

Golden Oldie: Don’t Forget the Oatmeal! A Word Book, 1980

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Tie a string around your finger and get ready to go grocery shopping with this weekend’s Golden Oldie review of a not-actually-a-Golden-book book from the Sesame Street book club.

Don’t Forget The Oatmeal!: A Word Book by B.G. Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my favorite Sesame Street book as a kid. I was very excited to find it at a used-book store for $2 a few years ago.
Identifying all the stuff at the grocery store was always a lot of fun. Cookie Monster’s cookies always looked really yummy too, even if I had no idea what the heck a macaroon was as a five-year-old. (I’ll admit it: I don’t think I knew what a macaroon was until I was 20.) I did always feel bad for the grocery store people who had to clean up after Cookie Monster’s mess.
Anyway, the pages without a lot of items to identify aren’t as fun, but it’s still an entertaining story. The end upset me often though, because every time I re-read it, I hoped and hoped and hoped that they wouldn’t forget the oatmeal. But (SPOILER ALERT) they always forgot it.

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Golden Oldie: Ernie Gets Lost, 1985

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My first Golden Oldie review is for an actual Golden book from 1985.

Ernie Gets LostErnie Gets Lost by Liza Alexander
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book traumatized me as a child, because I thought getting lost was a fate worse than death. Once you were lost, that’s it. You’ll never find your home again.

I got over it eventually, and maybe it was with Ernie’s help. I’m glad he found he way back to Maria and wasn’t lost at the department store forever. If he was, then Bert wouldn’t have received that badass Pigeon Land board game for his birthday. Man, I always wanted to play Pigeon Land so bad.

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A Swift Kick in the Gator Tots

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Don't judge a book by its cover.

Our book club recently finished Swamplandia! by Karen Russell. The marketing surrounding this book is very misleading. Blurbs by Entertainment Weekly and Carl Hiaasen lead you to believe that you’re in for a wacky, fun-filled ride. This is true, but you’re also destined for a total kick in the nards of your soul.

Avast! Here be spoilers!

A few of us found that Ava’s loss of the Red Seth to be one of the saddest moments of the novel. (As a sidenote, I don’t know if red alligators actually exist. This is important.) The Red Seth is, at its core, a symbol of innocence. At first, it seems like it might be representative of blossoming sexuality. It is red, after all. Plus, it’s “A tiny, fiery Seth.” (59), and the discovery of it is thrilling. The whole budding sexuality thing is more of a theme in the short story “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.” In Swamplandia! the red Seth ultimately symbolizes a child-like innocence. This is apparent when Ava throws it at the Bird Man in order to escape after she’s been raped by him.

Doing a google image search for "red alligator" only brings up pictures of hideous handbags and shoes.

The Seth is then lost forever. There’s no way for it to survive in the wild. As Ava says when she first discovers it, “I felt very certain that she was going to die. That nothing born this color could live for long in the open air.” (60)

That’s sad enough, but the meaning of the red Seth goes deeper than this. With the red Seth, Karen Russell suggests that innocence shouldn’t even exist. “The red on her skin seemed like a disease I could contract through my fingertips or a spell I could break, a color so pure and unreal that I thought it might rub off.” (59) It’s so fragile, there’s no place for it in the world.

Innocence’s ignorant bedfellow is hope. The two go hand in hand. “This alligator could save our park!” (60) Ava believes when she discovers the tiny red Seth hatching from an egg. She’s too young and ignorant to knwow any better. Nothing will save Swamplandia! from its fate. And as her mom suggests while in the hospital, it’s pointless to hope. “Hopes were wallflowers. Hopes hugged the perimeter of a dance floor in your brain, tuging at their party lace, all perfume and hems and doomed expectation.” (106) What do your hopes get you? Cancer and death.

Hi, I'm Karen Russell. And I hate children. Also, I despise rainbows, sunshine, and unicorns.

Eventually innocence is lost. It’s not just lost, you have to throw it away to defend yourself. And ultimately, after a while, you completely forget what innocence was even like: “When I’m awake, I can’t seem to draw a stable picture of the red Seth in my mind’s eye anymore–it feels like trying to light a candle on a rainy night, your hands cupped and your cheeks puffed and the whole we world conspiring to snatch the flame away from you. But in a dream I might get to see the part of the swamp where her body washed up, bloated and rippling, or where she escaped to, if the dream was beautiful.” (396)

Because of the Red Seth, I found Swamplandia! a deeply cynical novel. This isn’t a criticism. I’m a cynical person. Maybe it’s just my general mood lately, but I’ve been ruminating on this aspect of Swamplandia for a while, and I have to say I agree with it. And that makes me immensely sad.

All The World’s an Orifice

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Alternate title: What the hell is Nicholson Baker trying to say in House of Holes?

“Look up at those great clouds while […] I fuck the planet earth.”

House of Holes Cover Published in 2011, House of Holes is described on the back as “a modern-day Hieronymus Boschian bacchanal set in a pleasure resort where rules don’t apply.”

I don’t know what some of those words mean. I’d describe it as a filthy, fun, sci-fi porno enriched by Baker’s wonderful gift for language, but fails to hold my undivided interest for the entire thing. In that sense, it’s almost exactly like a porno. I’ll go back to it occasionally, but not to re-read the whole thing. I’ll just flip to the money shots.

Like these: “You mean I’m supposed to wank while Crackers does a lap dance?” (97) Even in context, I find this line LOLable.

Or this dry exchange: “Thank you,” said Kazumi. “I will let you feel my breasts now.” “Okay, great. Thanks.” Wade felt her breasts. (117)

Anything that isn’t completely out there and/or repugnant (like a woman being shrunk to a half-inch in size and stuck in a man’s penis, forcing him to masturbate her out.) is given nary any page space. “Mindy cooked him a three egg omelet and he ate it.” (228) And then back to the bangin’!

Holes is a collection of loosely related stories with recurring characters. Each one has a setup usually involving two strangers who have absolutely no qualms about discussing their most private and kinky sexual fantasies with each other. Then they do them. And anything is possible in the strange sci-fi world of the House of Holes, especially when it starts off with a girl named Shandee finding a disembodied arm that then feels up her roommate (causing Shandee to get fo’ realz jealous), that then transports them to a magical sex carnival.

Nicholson Baker

This man has the filthiest imagination ever. Image from the Post-Gazette. Click for an interesting article titled "Is House of Holes necessary?"

The set-up, brief exposition, XXX action, and money shot would get tiring if it wasn’t so incredibly out there and imaginative.

Still, after almost 200 pages of this, I started to wonder: Why?

It’s not until page 167 until any of his characters seem to show any form of human emotion, but in a very robotic fashion.

“And what after all is a soul mate?” “A soul mate is when you really think someone is great. You really like her a lot. You like when she explains things to you. You love her. That’s a soul mate.” “Oh,” said Trix. “Will you take me to the groanrooms?” Then they go to a pitch-black room and moan at each other. It’s like an aural orgy.

Later, there’s a very interesting chapter about Ned, who has his head detached (don’t worry, he’s fine), which leaves his body to have sex all by itself and the woman named Reece who rents out his body in the Headless Bedroom. She kind of has to teach the body what to do, sexwise, and grapple with her own feelings about casual sex. What’s more casual than having sex with a body that can’t think, speak, or respond?

If the tables were turned, and the woman was headless, it would come across as quite sexist at the least. But Baker never makes his women objects. They have their own desires and drives, and they always get what they want too. Even though all the sex is exclusively hetero, it’s a very inclusive book, spanning many different fetishes.

Holes has a surprisingly wholesome message: Two consenting adults can and should be able to do whatever the heck they want without any judgment. Your imagination is the only thing holding you back.

Baker occasionally makes other points beyond just “ngghghghghgh.” When magically removing a client’s tattoos Hax says, “[Tattoos are] something that hides you. It is a way of not being naked while being naked” (110). And when magically growing back Jessica’s pubic hair, Hax says about shaving, “That, too, is a way of hiding. No hair means you are dressed in hairlessness. You are finding a way to be clothed when you aren’t clothed. Hair is your true nakedness. Do you want your nakedness back?” (110) I hate living in such a shaved and plucked society. Hair is a statement. Hairlessness is the cowardly way out, and Baker put into words something I didn’t even know I had been thinking for a long, long time.

The book has what seems to be an almost backwards ending. A small couple made out of silver living in an egg (ignore the silver skin and egg part if you must) discover their own private parts, that they give them pleasure, and that they’re attracted to one another. On the last day the House of Holes is open for business, the egg hatches and the couple copulates in front of a cheering crowd of hundred.

Yes, this kinky book ends with a couple in love having vanilla sex with one other. Of course it’s voyeuristic, but every book taps into that voyeuristic desire to see and analyze someone’s private life. Back to the point, this couple is cheered and celebrated in its innocence.

So what do we learn, along with the residents of the House of Holes? Despite your kinkiest desires (and may they bring you the greatest of pleasure when you act them out safely and responsibility), loving sex of any kind, no matter how plain, is to be celebrated and revered.

I also recently finished Baker’s The Mezzanine, which, as far as Holes go, is startlingly clean. But it has the same wide-eyed appreciation for seemingly mundane aspects of life that I really connect with. I’ll write about that book soon.