Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hey, Boo

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

OK, everyone needs to stop what you're doing and go find a copy of Sissy Spacek reading this book. I am not exaggerating when I say it is the best audiobook performance I have ever heard. 

I have read To Kill a Mockingbird perhaps 10 or 12 times in my life, and it is one of my favorite books, but this was the first time I listened to it. Sissy was the perfect narrator for Scout, and she also did a fantastic job at all of the other voices. If you like audiobooks, this is a must-listen. (And if any publishers are reading this, please hire Sissy to narrate more Southern literature. Her voice is so soothing she could charm a cat out of a tree.)

What struck me about the story this time is how sadly relevant the issue of racial prejudice and inequality still is, even though the book was first published in 1960. At the heart of the novel is the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. What quickly becomes apparent is that Tom is innocent, and Mayella was actually beaten by her father, Bob Ewell, when he caught her trying to kiss a negro. 

Atticus Finch, the hero of the novel, does his best to defend Tom, but the jury (and most of the town) convicts him anyway, and Tom is condemned to death. Atticus' two children, Jem and Scout, are deeply upset by the case, especially when Bob Ewell continues to threaten them.

This book reminded me of the police shooting and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and of innumerable other stories in the news of African-Americans not being treated fairly by officers or the courts. I would like to find hope in what Atticus said when he's trying to explain the Tom Robinson case to Scout: "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

There is so much to love in this book. Scout, whose real name is Jean Louise, is a tomboy and she is our narrator. The story occurs over several years, and we watch her grow up. Harper Lee has a terrific sense of humor, and Scout's antics always make me laugh. 

One of Scout's best friends is a boy named Dill (a character reportedly inspired by Harper Lee's real-life friendship with Truman Capote) and at the start of the book, the kids are obsessed with a reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley. Boo is a mystery throughout the story, and when he finally appears, well, I usually have to wipe a few tears from my eyes.

Oh Harper Lee, why did you only write one book? This novel is a gem, a true American classic. It has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in 8th-grade English, and I think it has had an impact on every generation who reads it. And based on the news, it sounds like it is still needed.

Favorite Quotes
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 

“The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” 

“As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash.” 

“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.”

The Boy Detective Fails

The Boy Detective FailsThe Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When he was a youngster, Billy Argo was the best teenage sleuth Gotham City, New Jersey, had ever seen. That is, until his sister killed herself, sending Billy to the mental institution for a decade. Now that he's out, the boy detective has one last mystery to solve...

Back when I was a lad, sometime around the time the dog was first domesticated, I was a big fan of kid's mysteries like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the stupendous Encyclopedia Brown. They were soon lost to the sands of time as I gravitated toward more adult fare. Never did I ponder what might have happened to Encyclopedia Brown when he grew up.

The Boy Detective Fails is a quirky little book, written in the style of the mysteries I mentioned above, but with much more adult themes. In some ways, it reminds me of Sarah Gran's Claire DeWitt books, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. Adulthood was not kind to the boy detective, not even after he gets out of the mental institution.

The mystery that seems to plague the boy detective is what caused his sister's suicide. On some level, though, I think the real mystery Billy Argo has to solve is the mystery of adulthood and finding his place in a world that no longer welcomes him as it once did. Even his old foes like Von Golum find themselves without purpose besides tormenting the other denizens of the group home they share.

Joe Meno does a great job using the style of the books he's drawn his inspiration from. Once Billy befriends the Mumford kids and becomes entwined with Penny Maple, the book is very hard to put down.

The post-modern quirks might irk some readers but I thought they were used well within the context of the story and didn't feel like gimmicky crap.

The Boy Detective Fails is a charming, poignant tale that should appeal to fans of the children's mysteries of yesteryear. It's an easy four star read.

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