Monday 27 July 2015

To Read a Mockingbird?

'Daddy, they are making me read this boring book at school!'

With the publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (2015) setting literary hearts a flutter To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is in heavy demand at the library. I assume that many people would be re-reading the novel before they tackle Go Set a Watchman. I have read To Kill a Mockingbird, but that was way back in high school when I was fifteen. I’ve often thought that classics or modern classics are perhaps wasted on mostly uninterested teenagers. Harper Lee's novel certainly tested the limits of my interest at the time.

Other books I read at school were Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) and Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952). I remember finding Hemingway to be boring, but Huxley and Orwell made a more positive impact, perhaps because I was already reading science fiction. With this in mind I’ve been wondering whether I should read these novels again. I have no doubt that I would read them in a completely different way now, mostly because my perspective has been radically changed by experience and the passage of time.

Coincidentally I have also been thinking about re-reading Douglas Adam’s The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy series. Would they be as brilliant and funny to the adult me as they were to the teenage me? Could a reversal of perspective occur? Would I like Harper Lee and her ilk now and not like Douglas Adams as much as when I was a teenager? It’s quite possible, but perhaps the real question is am I willing to use valuable reading time in order to find out; particularly when I have unread classic novels such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851), Iris Murdock’s The Sea, The Sea (1978) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) sitting on my bookshelf. That’s right, I’m yet to read Catch-22, but if only it had been on my high school curriculum...

Thursday 23 July 2015

Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson (1994)

When Snow Falling on Cedars was published in 1994 it very quickly became a bestseller, going on to shift over four million copies. There was something about the tale set on an island just north of Seattle in the 1950’s that caught the imagination, but just what was it? Before I began reading the novel, required reading for the book club, there were two consistent responses from people who had read it already: that it was a great read, or that it was slow and boring. Curiously this was the exact same response from people who had seen the movie based on the book that came out in 1999. I steeled myself for 400 pages of boredom, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised and whilst the novel is by no means a work of genius it turns out that it is certainly a worthwhile read.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a post WWII courtroom drama that revolves around the nexus of the death of salmon fisherman Carl Heine. Fellow fisherman and childhood friend, Kabuo Miyamoto, is accused of murdering Heine after island sheriff Art Moran and his deputy pull the body of Heine from his own fishing nets. The aftermath of the war hangs heavily over the fictional island of San Piedro, which provides a beautifully brooding winter setting for the plot that quite skillfully explores the themes of racism, love, cultural identity and the impact of history on the individual.

The narrative consists of a range of back stories that gradually illuminate the present time (1954) and the court case itself. The narrative pace is slow and the style is realist; almost a throwback to nineteenth century realism. There’s great attention to detail and scenes are set with the utmost care, in particular the courtroom scenes. The overall effect is one of absorption rather than of boredom and I found myself wondering just how Guterson was making me so interested in small island life, salmon fishing and the cultivation of strawberries. Although some characters flirted with stereotype, in particular the Japanese inhabitants and the stoically brooding Carl Heine, they are alive on the page. It’s the synergy of many otherwise banal elements that makes Snow Falling on Cedars a satisfying novel to read.

If Snow Falling on Cedars were published today would it be a success? The novel is by no means innovative or difficult and basically tells a solid story in an evocative way, yet I don’t think that it would appeal to many younger readers who demand a narrative to reveal more sooner rather than later. Perhaps the modern day tendency toward narrative greed is too great for patience to triumph; a notion that is given credence by the fact that even the judges of the Man Booker Prize are talking about rewarding books with a narrative that zips along. The tension between what readers want and what writers produce has always been an important factor in the evolution of the novel and it should be fascinating to observe what happens as we shift from the Gutenberg mind to the digital mind.