This month we asked a long-time customer to collate a few literary insights for us to use in this column. He’s now involved with the humanitarian aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières and this year kept us abreast of post-earthquake traumas in Nepal. He is now posting us news of refugee tribulations in the Middle East.

 

Killing Mockingbirds is a Sin

 

He’s an actual book reader and we’ve got a long list of requests that we mail to him when they hit our shelves. One that he anticipated was the summer hit Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s prequel/sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird.

 

He enjoyed the book immensely, though he’s holding back on attributing it the same fame status its elder sibling easily earned. Like a lot of Mockingbird fans he was devastated to watch on helplessly as his all-time fictional hero, Atticus Finch, threw his support behind the town of Maycomb’s version of the Klu Klux Klan.

 

Mind you, our commentator had more reason than most to be taken aback. His parents read Mockingbird when it was first released in 1960 and were so impressed with the morally upright lawyer that they gave their son Atticus as a second name. (Apparently over half a million American males were similarly honoured in the following decade). To compound things further they gave him Jeremy as a main name to honor Atticus’ son, Jem.

 

Jem does not survive into the sequel having died in his 20s of an inherited disease. To our contemporary Jem’s horror, it is suggested that his fictional counterpart became imbued with all the ugly racist bigotries that swirled through towns in Alabama when the Civil Rights movement started to empower black Americans.

 

The only character from Mockingbird that doesn’t shatter our perceptions is Scout, now known as 26-year-old Jean Louise. She escaped the conservative confines of small town Maycomb and spent her late teens and adulthood in New York City honing her views on racial and gender equality. Her return to her birthplace where her old home has become an ice-cream parlour and where the blacks are getting uppity and demanding de-segregation, is an experience more devastating than that shared by all those male readers who carry her father’s name.

 

Mockingbird, says our commentator, was a story of the loss of innocence but one leavened with redemption. Its sequel is an observation of the deep structure of racism with all its associated bleakness and it has a pertinent, contemporary feeling to it that makes it well worth reading and discussing.

 

In the original novel, Atticus tells Scout and Jem that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird because ‘they don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy… but sing their hearts out for us’.

 

You close the covers of Watchman wondering if mockingbirds will ever have the chance to sing again.

 

On Being Alone and Different

 

Our commentator likes anything by Marilynne Robinson — who is a bit like Harper Lee in that her fictional literary output is spaced out at enticing intervals.
After her first book, Housekeeping, it took another 20 years before she wrote Gilead which (like Mockingbird) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

 

Gilead is said to be President Obama’s favourite novel and is the first in a trilogy that took another 15 years to complete.

 

When the Guardian and Time compiled lists of the best books written last century, Housekeeping featured on both.

 

Our commentator paraphrases a New York Times review agreeing that “Housekeeping is about a woman who has not managed to connect with a place, a purpose, a routine or another person. It’s about the immensely resourceful sadness of a certain kind of American, someone who has fallen out of history and is trying to invent a life without assistance of any kind, without even recognizing there are precedents.”

 

This year Faber publishers began to re-issue classic selections from its publishing history at affordable prices. Housekeeping was a first choice.

 

Understanding Grapes

 

Our commentator admits that it’s no coincidence that many novels he reads are set in small towns.

 

Endora — in his third selection — is an American town of a couple of thousand people, similar in conservative values to Harper Lee’s Maycomb and Robinson’s Fingerbone.

 

It’s in Endora that the Grape siblings are trapped by circumstances that are primarily a result of their demanding, obese mother. When she dies her four kids illegally turn the house into her funeral pyre and escape to new destinations and futures.

 

The catalyst for the Grape escape is a mysterious beauty who opens their collective eyes to greener pastures and gives an escape refuge to Gilbert and his intellectually disabled brother Arnie.

 

The fetching movie, directed by Lasse Halstrom, faithfully recreated from the novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape by Peter Hedges, launched the careers of Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio.

 

Truong is an avid reader and runs Bookworm (44 Chau Long, Ba Dinh, Hanoi) and Bookworm Weekend (6 Lane 1/28, Au Co, Tay Ho, Hanoi). For more information on go to bookwormhanoi.com

Truong Bookworm

Truong comes from a family of fisher folk and has been the owner manager of the Bookworm since 2006. Apart from being a book-o-phile he loves to explore Vietnam by bicycle and motorbike. His latest travel passion is tracing the contours of the Vietnamese coastline on foot. He’s also a sustainability fan and has a green home with a rooftop garden near the Duong River.

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