The Cause of Conscience: Go Set a Watchman (Book Review, Part 1)

2015-07-19 15.29.15(WARNING: Spoilers)

I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird. This is cause for alarm among you many literate people, but you needn’t think me unlettered. In high school I read Poe, Shakespeare, JD Salinger and Carson McCullers; lots of plays, many short stories, and certainly some fat summer beach reads, too (The Thorn Birds, Jaws, Roots, Shogun and Hotel, to name a few). In college I majored in journalism and had no cause for deep American reading, and no affinity for Southern lit, but I did read Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. I went on to study early 20th-century British literature for my master’s degree, and drank my fill of Woolf, Joyce, and Orwell. I still read scads of early and mid-century Brit lit. It’s my crack. But I didn’t have Harper Lee on my radar for pleasure reading until now.

I’ll add a caveat to my preamble that I realize there is an issue with the release of Lee’s first draft/second book. I have read her biography and understand the nature of her friendship with Truman Capote, her anxiety about meeting people and the “sophomore slump” that often hits young, successful authors who feel unequal to producing as fine a work again. I also recognize that there are claims of elder abuse and mixed opinions about the role of Lee’s sister as protector or as censor. History will judge those who abused Lee’s trust, I’m sure.

With all that in mind, I set out to read Go Set a Watchman before reading TKAM, in hopes of seeing which felt the more true. GSAW was written first, as the earlier draft of TKAM, so they say, but her agent and editor did not think it would sell. Lee rewrote the story from the young Scout’s viewpoint and had a bestseller on her hands. She eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for her work. That’s pretty heady stuff.

“For thus the Lord said to me: “Go, set a watchman; let him announce what he sees.” Isaiah 21:6

It is but a quirk of fate that in the past month, there was an assassination of nine African-Americans in Charleston, SC, and the Confederate flag has at last begun to come down. The #BlackLivesMatter and #Occupy campaigns have raised the African American issue in the media — and a new generation of activists are tired of waiting for justice and equality. As well, in the past few months I have been engaged in family history research and have been grappling with my own Alabama roots and heritage of slave-owning in my DNA. White privilege? Yes. So much yes.

* * *

I opened Go Set a Watchman with virgin eyes and no idea other than generalities on what to expect. And was — riveted.

Scout as a young woman — Jean Louise — is New York City-cynical, streetwise, on vacation to Maycomb, Alabama. Her brother is dead. Her beau, childhood friend Hank, is on hand to woo her back to small-town life. Attorney Atticus Finch, whom she calls by his first name, is her father, crippled by arthritis, a longtime widower living with his pushy Southern matron sister, Alexandra. Adult Jean Louise is a sexual being, pushing the boundaries of Southern small-town mores by behaving like the child Scout; a late-night swim with her beau creates a furor. She’s also enlightened, having crossed the border into Yankee territory and lived and worked alongside a rainbow of skin-tones. She returns to find Maycomb charmingly simple, the same as always, but smaller in size and in their way of thinking. The problem isn’t that home has changed; it’s that she has changed.

The era is the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement is underway, with integration and the like on the agenda. The whites of Maycomb don’t like it, and their “citizens’ committee” looks a lot like the KKK. The N-word is thrown around with vitriol and Jean Louise is alarmed — she thinks of herself as color-blind. There is an incident whereby a white neighbor is accidentally killed by the grandson of Calpurnia, Jean Louise’s African American surrogate mother — their housekeeper as she and Jem were growing up. When Jean Louise comes face to face with a grieving Calpurnia, the young woman knows everything is different, that black and white are not the same, at least not down in Maycomb. And when she discovers her father and fiance in a citizens’ committee meeting, she realizes her whole life has been a lie.

I will say no more about the plot — too much already, perhaps. But to turn to the Atticus problem: I am familiar with the figure of righteous Atticus waving his figurative sword at prejudice and racism, despite not having read TKAM or seeing the entire movie. He shows up as a cultural touchstone in films, books, essays and news articles. The Atticus I find in GSAW is an aging man of his era; he was steeped in racism in small-town Alabama from his youth, and whatever his personal beliefs, the tint of the standard philosophy is going to seep in. I read his protests to adult Scout as plausible — he’s at the meeting to keep an eye on things. He’s in the group but not of the group. Hank is there because he wants to succeed in small town life; it would be social suicide not to participate  — plausible today but frankly, reprehensible. Atticus is a character with his own moral compass who’s dragging his feet into the new era; he is less obstructionist and certainly less vocal and violent about it than his sister or the neighbors. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? He’s a racist — but they all are. What I don’t follow is Dr. Jack Finch, Scout’s uncle (Atticus’s brother), teaching a brutal lesson fraught with bizarre classical literary references, to Jean Louise on hero-worship. That final episode seems overwrought and histrionic in the extreme. Dr. Finch is the oddball in the bunch, acting as Greek chorus to show Jean Louise her errors.

What is hard to read, especially in light of current events — and as I said above, I read a lot of novels from the early 20th century, weekly, in fact; I am used to seeing non-PC expressions like “nigger in the woodpile” or “worked like a nigger” in those dated texts — what strikes me as much harder to swallow is the infantilization of the African American race as a whole by the characters, including Jean Louise, that continues today. “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people…They’re [the NAACP are] trying to wreck us,” Atticus says. While Jean Louise argues for a race’s humanity, all the characters accept the belief that the Negroes have miles to go before they sleep, even as the population is being oppressed and prevented from enjoying their civil rights (no wonder they have so far to go). I see this attitude still alive in the world today; African Americans are “that way,” are “like that,” fill in the blank as you wish. They are Different from white people, and don’t know better, and have to be protected from themselves (cue talking heads nattering about black-on-black violence instead of the centuries of causes for violence in a shell-shocked community). And the stratification endures.

As a text, as fiction, Lee’s work is stellar. Jean Louise is a thoughtful character, sympathetic and well drawn. The scenes where African American characters have agency are few and far between, despite a story that purports to have their interest at heart, but what is there is sharp and very keenly felt. Calpurnia calling Jean Louise “Miss Jean” for the first time upon the girl’s menarche, or Calpurnia’s silence when Jean Louise arrives to commiserate over the tragedy, speaks volumes about the strict racial divide. Hank’s unsuitability as a mate for Jean Louise, the class division of this same society, is portrayed in the subplot. Setting, language, dialogue, plot and characters are beautifully crafted for a first novel, and I am in awe of Lee’s youthful skills.

Where the book fails for me is the denouement, the confrontation between Scout and her father. I don’t think it works. The strange tutelage of Uncle Jack feels dropped in from another planet. I have trouble following his Red Queen logic, and so does Scout, for that matter. And I certainly don’t buy the neat reconciliation that ends with Jean Louise remembering not to bump her head on anything difficult in life, like racism in her town, or her beau’s KKK connection.

2015-07-19 15.30.45
Ophelia has thoughts on being black and white, but prefers to leave it to the reader. #catsofwordpress

I have not yet cracked the spine of TKAM. I look forward to reviewing that story, and then, comparing and contrasting the two, side by side, as an author’s oeuvre and as documents of our national racist heritage.

Your thoughts? Tell me.

Do Not Disturb: Am Writing.

“Lady Writing a Letter,” Jan Vermeer. c 1670

Don’t try and stop me. I have writing to do.

I’m writing while I fold laundry and wash dishes.

I’m writing while I sit by my husband’s bed awaiting his back surgery.

I’m writing while I drive home late at night.

I’m writing when I get up at 3 a.m. to let the cat in. Or out.

I’m writing when it looks like I’m reading. Or spacing out. Or chopping vegetables.

Because, for me, writing doesn’t look like writing until the last 10 percent.

“Genius is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration.” — Thomas Alva Edison

Writing — for me — is like that, too, sort of. It’s all in my head until the last bit, which is writing it down (on paper or screen). I don’t sit at my desk and wonder what will come. I write all the time, and then sit down and let it out.

And that’s about all I have to say. Tomorrow I have an essay to write. A chapter to finish. Some poetry that is weeping my name.

I’m almost ready.

Wait and see.

Book Review: On Writing (Stephen King)

Worksheet from Martha Alderson’s “Plot Whisperer” workshop with Jordan Rosenfeld: Writer Path.

You’d think I had other things to do, but I just reread this how-to and wanted to share some thoughts while they were still fresh in my mind. I’m a great re-reader of books (see last Monday’s blog), and needed a kick in the pants this month to get me back on track with my revisions. Herewith, my review of SK’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

Stephen King began writing his book on the craft of writing to delve into the language and show fledgling writers something about how it’s done, or how he does it, anyway. Midway through the manuscript, he was gravely injured in a well-publicized accident and almost died. That experience shapes the rest of the book and gives the ultimate section of On Writing a particularly poignant tone. This section was serialized in The New Yorker, and those who haven’t read it already may turn directly to it with good cause: King’s story is powerful personal drama. But turn back to the beginning for an equally powerful, if much lighter, look into King’s development as a writer.

In the first section, “C.V,” King mines his memory for early glimpses of the evolving writer, in hilarious tidbits. King is not the pop-horror hack that many of his critics claim him to be; in On Writing, King is on his game: intelligent, bluntly honest, profanely funny. He tells how he came to succeed as a writer and what mistakes he’s made along the way, including an alcohol and drug problem that nearly cost him his marriage. In the center section, “Toolbox,” King gives the nuts, bolts, and how-tos of writing, none of which are unexpected nor too revelatory. His advice is mostly practical: “Avoid bullshit,” he says, among other bons mots. As a how-to-write book, you could do worse, or better, than this one. As a peek into the King psyche and wit, On Writing is a must-read.

* * *

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

by Stephen King
Scribner 2000
$25.00 288 pages
ISBN 0-684-85352-3


Work-in-Progress blog hop!

I know I wrote onIMG_5066 this topic about six months ago, but I’m working on new things, so I said yes to the invitation to share my WIP. I was invited by Laurie Baxter (click here to visit her blog post). Thanks, Laurie!

What is your working title of your book (or story)?
Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News: #2 in the Hot Off the Press Series

Where did the idea come from for these books?
I wanted Veronika to have some more adventures, of course, but my friend Woody Minor told me a true story about a local Victorian house that possibly had Gold Rush coins hidden in the walls. I took that idea and ran with it.

What genre do your books fall under?
Veronika is a mystery. My Hot Off the Press series is suspenseful and romantic, but closer to NA mystery than anything else. You could also call them chick-lit but NA (New Adult) is the preferred term these days.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Veronika Layne chases a story about a Hollywood real estate house flipper, mysterious gold coins, and why someone is buying up old houses on San Pedro Island.

Will your book(s) be self-published or represented by an agency?
Booktrope, a hybrid publisher, is representing my Veronika Layne series, as well as Tongues of Angels.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I wrote this quickly, as a NaNoWriMo project — thirty days! But revisions took quite a bit longer. I revised for several months after that. it’s a short book, just 50,000 words, so it goes fast, both reading and writing.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I think you can compare Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News with anything that Dick Francis wrote — it has the same steeped-in-her-occupation as Francis’s jockeys or other MCs. You could also compare Veronika with Bridget Jones, for getting into sticky situations and feeling like a flop.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My friend Woody gave me the idea, but I have been nurturing Veronika Layne inside of me for some time. She has the characteristics of my daughters — smart, feminist, fun — with the shrewd journalist I longed to be. She has some of my insecurities but she hasn’t yet attained wisdom. I’m enjoying watching her grow as a woman and as a reporter.

I also included a character named Flo who was a real-life sweet friend and neighbor of ours who painted beautiful florals and still lifes. I have several of her paintings. The story about Flo is mostly true. Here’s some of the real Flo’s work:

IMG_5064 IMG_5065

I still miss Flo today, and was happy I could include her in this sub-plot about a talented artist who acts as Veronika’s surrogate grandmother. These paintings are in my office and I see and love them every day.

Third Time’s a Charm!

Current edition of Tongues of Angels, 2015

You know how it feels when your child attempts to do something, and you know it’s going to be difficult, but you stand back and watch her struggle anyway? And maybe she’s not so successful? And then she tries again, a few years later, and struggles, and is still not completely successful? You cheer her on no matter what, even though you have the gut feeling that she might not make it?

That’s what it has felt like with my first novel, Tongues of Angels. This novel, TOA for short, was my creative thesis in grad school. My poor thesis advisor read it at least three times, and it was a ghastly 500 pages long at the time. I feel for her, I do. I pitched the novel to agents and to more agents, and got lots of maybes but no yeses. I took chunks of it to writing conferences and got a pat from Jane Smiley and a hug from Michael Cunningham, and I had a long correspondence with Ron Hansen in which he encouraged me to push onward.

I workshopped it and book-doctored it, had alpha readers give it thumbs up – and a librarian at the university took it home to read over Christmas break and showed it to her brother who’s a screenwriter in Hollywood. The novel became a story treatment that went the rounds, including landing on Salma Hayek’s lap. I have a check for $1 that is my movie option. If someone bought it I would have received $40,000.

And then – I got divorced, and putting food on the table for my three girls became priority number one. I struggled for a couple of years as an editor at two different weekly newspapers; at the latter one, the Alameda Sun, the owners decided that we should put out some books, to broaden the reach of the publishing company. Who had a book that was ready for prime time? I did. Scarlet Letter Press launched its first book with Tongues of Angels, but in order to broaden the distribution they decided that iUniverse would be the best bet for getting onto Amazon and around the world.

So we did that. Online selling was not huge yet, and ebooks were just a blip on the radar. The book sold some hundreds of paperback copies but not millions. The reviews were very good. The press was outstanding. I did several readings throughout California and got excellent coverage. But I spent most of my time trying to get independent bookstores to carry it, and when they would carry it, would they please pay me? I am still owed, to this day, hundreds of dollars from indie bookstores that never paid for their books.

Ten years later, in 2013, I was in a coalition of independent writing women and we were all publishing amazing work. The indie movement had taken off, had rocketed  into the stratosphere, and I got myself a Kindle and had a revelation. Let’s redo TOA with a new cover and try it as an indie! A fantastic designer, Chelsea Starling, redid the cover for the 21st century, and away we went. Reviews were still excellent, and then I got picked up by Booktrope and they were delighted to republish my older books. They wanted TOA in their stable. So I sent this little baby back through the channels again – same cover, re-edit, proofing, and now, back into the world for a third time.

Is the third time the charm? Maybe.

Here’s the synopsis:

A lifelong vow. A Catholic priest with questions. A penitent woman with a secret past. A jealous friend. The fourth in this lover’s knot? God. A true love story that shocked the Catholic Church, and pulled back the curtain on the priesthood.

Average 4 ½ stars on Amazon.

And here’s what the critics said:

David Baker, Snapshots of A Marriage: “As erotically compelling as the Song of Songs.”

Dan Barnett, Chico Enterprise-Record: “Sexually charged: I was struck by [Park Tracey’s] lush, hothouse, erotic style.”

Christa Martin, Santa Cruz Good Times:Tongues of Angels swings open the doors to the Catholic Church, lifts up the chasuble and exposes what’s underneath…Her novel talks about all the things [they] hope we won’t talk about.”

Kelly Vance, East Bay Express: “Hot under the collar…A scandalous yarn.”

Jordan Rosenfeld, Forged in Grace: “Julia Park Tracey brings wicked honesty and scathingly hot prose to this soulful novel; with crackling nuance, she seduces readers. Tongues of Angels is both sexy and spiritual.”

 Is this something you might like? Give it a try.