Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1960. 376 pp)

Born in 1926, Harper Lee is an author best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Although this novel was her only published work, its longstanding success contributed to Lee winning the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lee attended Huntingdon College for one year before attending the University of Alabama. In the wake of success, Lee has accepted numerous honorary degrees. She currently splits time between New York City and Monroeville, Alabama.

Just Because We Can Share the Same Water Fountain Doesn’t Mean We Are Sharing the Same Water Fountain

According to a recent New York Times project, North Seattle is predominantly white while South Seattle offers a multi-cultural dynamic. Why is it that 47 years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, a city as liberal as Seattle is still segregated? For most white citizens, the ideals of equality have taken deep roots yet family and daily routines insulate individuals from actively practicing such virtues. On the surface, humanity is created equal but heaven forbid that ethnicities interact!

In light of recent evidence, Harper Lee’s classic novel remains relevant. Set during the Great Depression in a small town of Maycomb, Alabama, To Kill a Mockingbird is narrated by the protagonist, Scout Finch. Living with her brother Jem and widowed father, Atticus – a lawyer of high esteem – the books narrates a story of innocence lost and racial relations in the Deep South.

Those Were the Days When Kids Actually Played Outside

Scout and Jem spend summer vacations utilizing the neighborhood as a playground with their friend, Dill. Lee brilliantly channels the mind of youth in her descriptions of these summers. Fascinated with their reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley, the children continually devise plans to see the man in his native habitat and concoct expansive stories about the source of his reclusive nature. Reading these sections reminded me of my youth and the fear of jumping a neighbor’s fence to retrieve baseballs. With innocent minds, the most miniscule task could be infinitely dreadful, and dangerous actions seemed commonplace and of no need for worry.

Lee summarizes the children’s age of innocence well when she writes,

“For reasons unfathomable to the most experienced prophets of Maycomb County, autumn turned to winter that year. We had two weeks of the coldest weather since 1885, Atticus said. Mr. Avery said it was written on the Rosetta Stone that when children disobeyed their parents, smoked cigarettes and made war on each other, the seasons would change: Jem and I were burdened with the guilt of contributing to the aberrations of nature, thereby causing unhappiness to our neighbors and discomfort to ourselves” (85).

Racial Injustice

In the same season, the court appoints Atticus to defend Tom Robinson, an African-American man accused of raping a white woman from an abusive family not popular with many folks in Maycomb. In the racially segregated South, such actions became the talk of the town and eventually spilled over to the lives of Jem and Scout.

As the plot unfolds, themes of prejudice and injustice threaten to fracture the children’s innocence.

Throughout the story, the moral compass of Atticus Finch provides a beacon for his children. Despite the misgivings of the townspeople, Atticus not only educates his children on the importance of racial equality, he also allows his children to live out these ideals when they visit African-American churches and communities.

Incarnational Living

In an era ripe with continued underlying segregation, To Kill a Mockingbird reminds us of the importance of incarnationally engaging in relationships with all cultures. Despite the fact that the grievous injustices represented in the book no longer exist, the insulated, mono-cultured lives of most individuals reinforce the idea that other cultures ought to remain other.

How should someone engage with other cultures? Should people of one culture move into the neighborhoods typically dwelt by other cultures? Should people serve or work in multi-cultured organizations? While I am unaware of the perfect answer to that question, I realize it is important to do something.

To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic work worth every ounce of the label “masterpiece.” I am truly grateful to have read it at an older age because I believe I gleaned more from it now than I would have understood as a teenager. For those who have yet to read this book, please read it soon.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Album Review: The King Is Dead

The King Is DeadThe King Is Dead by the Decemberists (Capitol Records, 2011. 41 minutes)

The Decemberists are a folk band located in Portland, Oregon. Led by Colin Meloy and backed by Chris Funk, Jenny Conlee, Nate Query, and John Moen, the band writes songs with a foundation in storytelling. Previous releases The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love, are classified as concept albums and display many progressive rock elements. The Decemberists originally signed to Olympia-based record label, Kill Rock Stars in 2003. In 2005, Capitol Records signed the band and distributed the band’s last three records.

In Green Pastures

Fresh off of two concept albums, the Decemberists return with a straight-up, Americana-influenced folk record. The King Is Dead neglects the idea of an album as a story and substitutes it with quality songwriting. Recorded in a barn located in the Oregon countryside, the lyrical and musical construction of this record is purely pastoral.

True to form, Colin Meloy’s lyrics are equally erudite and poetic. Despite an over-arching plotline, each song recites stories of rural life. At the beginning of “Rise to Me,” Meloy proclaims,

“Big mountain, wide river / There’s an ancient pull / These tree trunks, these stream beds / Leave our bellies full”

These lyrics point to a central theme in the King Is Dead: the relationship between humanity and nature.
Additionally, Meloy dives into seasonal themes with “January Hymn” and “June Hymn.” In the latter, he echoes the chorus,

“And once upon it / The yellow bonnets / Garland all the lawn / And you were waking / And day was breaking / A panoply of song / And summer comes to Springville Hill”

The references to agrarian life not only fuel the record’s content but also fit well rhythmically. Each song on the King Is Dead contains a beautiful flow between verse, chorus, and bridge.

With a Strum

From a musical standpoint, the Decemberists hold back compared to previous releases. Where the Crane Wife and the Hazards of Love emitted bombastic sections and highly dynamic tunes, the King Is Dead provides comparatively simple sounds for the ears.

Nevertheless, simplicity does not equal boring. The acoustic guitar work offers a robust foundation for the rest of the instrumentation. Although the chord structures in no way sound unique, its execution coupled with the rest of the backing instrumentation supplies fertile ground for the vocal melodies.

Take Some Chances!

However, the King Is Dead misses the mark in certain spots. First, the vocal melodies could use an extra push to become great. Even though nothing is glaringly wrong with the vocals, most melodies border on boring. If Meloy took a couple of vocal chances on the record, he could have propelled it from good to great.

Likewise, the track, “This Is Why We Fight,” misfires toward the end of the record. Although, the song itself is enjoyable, within the context of a record immersed in a pastoral narrative, the song feels entirely out of place when Meloy sings,

“Come the war / Come the avarice / Come the war / Come hell / Come attrition / Come the reek of bones / Come attrition / Come hell”

Having made my critique, I ultimately recommend the King Is Dead. While the record may never grace the top of a year-end list, it is the evidence of the band’s consistent output. If you are a prior fan of the Decemberists, a fan of folk music, or acoustic-based indie music, I recommend the King Is Dead.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Book Review: The Devotion of Suspect X

The Devotion of Suspect XThe Devotion of Suspect X: A Novel by Keigo Higashino, translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander (New York: Minotaur Books, 2011. 304 pp)

Born in Osaka and currently living in Tokyo, Keigo Higashino is a bestselling Japanese author. He is the winner of the Edogawa Rampo Prize and the Mystery Writers of Japan, Inc. Prize.

Alexander O. Smith translates novels, manga, and video games. He has been nominated for the Eisner Award and won the ALA’s Batchelder Award for his translation of Miyuki Miyabe’s Brave Story. He lives with his family in Vermont.

Telegraphed Influences

I enjoy Mumford and Sons but they bother me. Mumford and Sons is a Grammy nominated music group from London, England. Their debut record, Sigh No More is a well-written and somewhat catchy folk album. What bothers me is that they stole another band’s sound. More specifically, Mumford’s timbre pays homage to Seattle’s own Fleet Foxes. Although bands owning a similar sound are nothing new, the fact that Mumford has found popularity using another band’s sound irks me. Just as Mumford teeters between influenced by and ripping off another band, Keigo Higashino’s the Devotion of Suspect X uses classical literature as an influence for his story.


Higashino’s first English debut fits the classic mystery mold with a few added exceptions. The Devotion of Suspect X portrays the story of Yasuko, a single mother who takes the life of her ex-husband by an act of rage and/or self-defense. Ishigami, Yasuko’s smitten neighbor and genius mathematician self-sacrificially assists in the disposal of the body and developing her alibi. However, the reader only knows that Yasuko kills her husband and Ishigami desires to help clean up the mess.

With the first few chapters setting the scene, the rest of the book exhibits a battle of wits between Ishigami, the detectives, and the mathematician’s former colleague, Yakuwa the physicist.

While the book continued to entertain me throughout, it felt shallow. Often I read descriptions of how an event occurred without ever hearing why the event transpired. In other words, the Devotion of Suspect X lacked the underlying depth needed to lift a story from good to great.

Have I Read This Book Before?

Containing one part Crime and Punishment and two parts A Tale of Two Cities, Higashino concocts a cocktail of murder, jealousy, and love. Yet such lofty comparisons to Dostoevsky and Dickens provide Higashino with too much credit. Truthfully, the Devotion of Suspect X carries little underlying significance. The book contains no cultural critiques and social commentary; it is merely an entertaining book.

Just as Mumford and Sons liberally seasons its music with the Fleet Foxes’ sound, Higashino leans heavily on Dostoevsky and Dickens. Likewise, my annoyance for Mumford and Sons translates well to the Devotion of Suspect X because of its clear classic influences and lack of depth. I recommend this book only if you are interested in a decent, surface-level story.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Book Review: Room

Room: A NovelRoom: A Novel by Emma Donoghue (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. 336 pp)

Emma Donoghue was born in Dublin, Ireland to Frances and Denis Donoghue. She attended University College Dublin earning first-class honors in English and French. Later, she received her Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge. In addition to Room, she has written the Sealed Letter, Landing, Touchy Subjects, Life Mask, the Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits, Slammerkin, Kissing the Witch, Hood, and Stirfry. Donoghue lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.

All the Pretty Colors

Consider infrared and ultraviolet light. We know it exists, yet the human eye is unable to perceive it. If we could view these portions of the spectrum, what would it look like? In other words, could you imagine new colors? Emma Donoghue’s Room explores a similar motif.

Room depicts the captivity of five-year-old Jack and his mother, Ma. Although the book lacks significant action, its presentation and plot provide for fascinating reading.

Worlds Within Worlds

To start, Room is narrated through the mind of our five-year-old protagonist. Born in Room, Jack’s world exists in a confined space. While the reader and ma understand the wealth people, objects, and ideas in the external world or “Outer Space” as Jack likes to think of it, Jack’s surroundings supply him with the incapacity of understanding his predicament.

Blessed with a television and the possibility of receiving a weekly gift known as “Sunday Treat,” Jack has no reason to criticize his environment.

When Ma attempts to educate Jack about their mutual situation, Jack finds the conclusions incomprehensible.

“Outside has everything. Whenever I think of a thing no like skis or fireworks or islands or elevators or yo-yos, I have to remember that they’re real, they’re actually happening in Outside all together. It makes my head tired. And people too, firefighters teachers burglars saints soccer players and all sorts, they’re all really in Outside. I’m not there, though, me and Ma, we’re the only ones not there. Are we still real?” (70-71).

Moreover, Jack’s immense imagination illustrates Room as a fantastical dreamscape. It is imperative to congratulate Donoghue on her well-crafted representation of Jack and his relationship with his mother.

In the Mind of Children

On top of these themes, reading the story through the mind of a child creates an intriguing dichotomy as the reader is painfully aware of the horror surrounding the reality of the situation. In times of sickening events happening to Ma, Jack does not contain the maturity to fully understand the situation.

For this reason, the reader is presented the story in childish terms while understanding the grim truth surrounding the narrative in adult terms.

Just as the very idea of comprehending infrared and ultraviolet light as entirely new colors provides foreign results, the exterior world surrounding Room supplies ideas much too grand for Jack to understand. In Room, Donoghue writes compellingly about an intriguing concept with dark-yet-beautiful results. Highly recommended.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Book Review: The Blasphemer

The Blasphemer: A NovelThe Blasphemer: A Novel by Nigel Farndale (New York: Crown Publishers, 2010. 384 pp)

Best known for his interviews in the Sunday Telegraph, Nigel Farndale is a British author and journalist. Farndale went to Barnard Castle School before receiving a master’s degree in philosophy from Durham University. On top of his work for the Sunday Telegraph, Farndale contributes articles to the Sunday Times, Country Life, and Spectator. Of his five published books, Haw-Haw: The Tragedy of William and Margaret Joyce was shortlisted for both the 2005 Whitbread Prize and James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Additionally, The Blasphemer was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Novel Award. Farndale lives between Hampshire and Sussex with his wife and three sons.

The Lifeboat

The lifeboat example, a classical Philosophy 101 illustration, depicts a scenario in which you reside safely in a lifeboat surrounded by a sea of drowning passengers. While the hope of you – the lone lifeboat resident ­– is to save as many as possible, only one more person can safely board. Amongst the drowning treads your spouse, a brilliant physicist, and a poor child. Who should you save?

Daniel Kennedy – a zoologist, Dawkinsian atheist, and protagonist of The Blasphemer – would first choose to save himself. As a downed seaplane off the Galapagos Islands fills with water, he swims past his struggling, common-law wife, Nancy, in order to reach the surface. Although Daniel fills his lungs with air in order to swim back down to the sinking wreckage in order to save Nancy, the psychological damage is done.

Later, while Daniel attempts to swim approximately 14 miles to the Galapagos Islands hoping to find help for his fellow survivors, he is compelled forward by a vision of a man, an apparition, or more logically a hallucination.

Fight, Flight, and Faith

Farndale’s book discusses weighty subjects. Following Daniel’s great-grandfather, Andrew Kennedy, through the First Great War and detailing Daniel’s detective-natured father, Philip, the Blasphemer narrates three familial generations through war, terrorism, and foundational belief.

In between the tensions of modern science and ancient religious tradition, Farndale crafts his characters:

“Perhaps you are right. Perhaps that is why God makes angels, immaterial beings whose identity resides in the world of thought. The unseen world. The abstract world. They are creatures that can’t be explained away by scientists.”
“Thought you sad men make angels.”
“No. I said that Darwin said that men make angels.”
“So you do believe in them?”
“They have been described as the most beautiful conceit in mortal wit, and I would go along with that” (177).

Although the tome begins slowly, the story compellingly unfolds into a page turner. Farndale’s characters provide depth in the storyline and the motifs from each era unite nicely.

Foundational Faith

Ultimately, the Blasphemer is a cinematic story surrounding belief. While some create a dichotomy between faith and reason, Farndale suggests that faith is a necessary aspect of reason. When placed in stressful and life-threatening situations, humans react in different ways. Some safe themselves, some save the most talented, and other are self-sacrificial. In all of these instances, actions exist on a foundation of faith. As one of the better books read last year, I recommend this book.