Go set a watchman

Disappointment is a result of expectation.

If you expect nothing, you’ll never be disappointed. But then, if you don’t expect something from an experience, it means you’re not invested in it. That you’re indifferent and neutral. At that point, is that experience even worth your time?

When I first heard Harper Lee had released a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird, I was thrilled. I’d read that book a few months ago at the time, and snatches of Atticus and Scout and Jem were etched in my memory. That was 2017-ish. I’d stepped into my twenties, bright young thing, and had dutifully posted a photo of my reading journey on Instagram.

Go Set a Watchman would be a lovely way to relive those characters in a different, more mature light, I thought.

Life happened. So many other books took precedence over Lee’s second masterpiece. Indeed, it took a global pandemic and a second lockdown for me to get my hands on it. A lot had changed since Mockingbird, and far too much time between then and now.

However, my thrill remained unchanged. I still remembered Scout (although I might’ve accidentally said Scott in a few real-life conversations with friends), and I still loved the relationship between the old lawyer and his children, a reflection of my own relationship with my father, even though it was starkly different.

I had a lot to look forward to. Which is why the disappointment was enormous.

As readers, we last saw Scout as a pre-teen tomboy. When we see her again in the sequel, she’s 26 and a lady, more lady-like than I ever imagined she could be. Clearly, people are never who they were when they were adolescents. Disappointment 1. But it’s the reality. Harsh, but acceptable.

We then learn that she’s got a boyfriend now. Of course, she’s a straight woman of marriageable age. Why wouldn’t she have a boyfriend? But did it have to be her best friend, the one she grew up with? Cliché. Disappointment 2.

Still, it’s the ’50s, and the story’s set in small-town Maycomb. Having lived there all his life, Henry knows little of the life outside of his town. It’s probably not too surprising that he falls in love with what seems like the only girl in town. Speaking of which, where are all the other girls? Aside from showing up to a gossip party with stories of husbands and children, there aren’t many young women in town. Again, I tell myself, it’s a small town. Justifiable, to some extent.

We move on. Curiously, Jean Louise doesn’t know how to get into a car without hitting her head. She can drive, though. Sure, she lives in New York, where you don’t need a vehicle to commute, but come on, I’m 26 and can’t drive, but I still watch my head when I get into a car. Common sense.

Sure, Jean Louise’s character arc is to have her grow as a person. But there’s a difference between immature and nonsense.

If she’s mature enough to discard the name Scout and have people call her by her real name, Jean Louise (not Jean or Louise), then she’s mature enough to know how a car works, surely?

So disappointment 3: Jean Louise gives us a lot of mixed messages about who she is as a person.

Disappointment 4: “He poured himself a man-sized drink.”

Jem’s dead. And the only explanation we get is that he dropped dead on the street one day. He’d inherited his weak heart from their mother. Now I know that Jean Louise is the protagonist, and we’re interested in her personal growth. But I have a brother, and if he dropped dead suddenly, it’ll gnaw at my head and heart for as long as I live. Even if I recover from the initial shock, I’d still be unable to talk casually about wearing a hat to my brother’s funeral, with ‘he would’ve laughed at me’ as an afterthought. The absolute lack of acknowledgment for Jem’s death is alarming. Sure, there are a few mentions of it, but none seem enough. Disappointment 5.

It’s not all bad, though. Jean Louise lives in New York, and from the beginning, she’s doubtful whether she wants to marry Henry. Identity crisis, nicely done. Although, not. Fan of her leading him on to believe she’ll eventually say yes. Seems terrible, especially because he’s her best friend. Does she wonder if this would affect their friendship in the future? No, she doesn’t.

Jean Louise visits Calpurnia. Shows there’s still some love there. There’re a few pleasant moments for a while. Flashbacks to how Cal took care of the Finches are all good additions. Again, there’s one random instance of Jean Louise recollecting how Jem was Cal’s precious little Jem. It makes you wonder, as a reader, and want more, but the train of thought ends abruptly, leaving you wondering why she brings Jem up in the first place.

Childhood memories. I enjoyed these anecdotes, even though some were a bit drab. There’s some mild emotion as Jean Louise speaks about how Jem’s good friend, who went to Europe in the army, is the only one they hadn’t personally told about Jem’s death. Found out about it from the paper. That’s a grim way to hear your best bud passed away prematurely. It’s a helpful detail in the overall narrative. Even though it doesn’t do much to move Jean Louise’s story forward, it’s one of the more solid acknowledgments to Jem’s death.

Dr. Finch. No one can hate an eccentric old doctor. He’s exactly what Jean Louise needs—someone who’d tell her to shut up and listen, and when she doesn’t, slap hard enough to make her pause and reflect. I don’t support violence as punishment, especially for children, which is why I like that it comes from her uncle and not her father. From his interactions with Jean Louise throughout the story, we see that, like Atticus, he takes things in his stride, but he’s also a strong guardian and a second parent who watches her back. Every kid needs that—someone they can talk to other than their parents. The relationship dynamic between the two is interesting—unlike with Atticus, Jean Louise is far more direct and curt with her uncle without having worrying about hurting him or how he’d perceive her. In many ways, he’s helping her figure herself out. I also find it quite amusing that Jean Louise thinks of him as bat shit crazy when he’s probably the sanest person in the story.

Of course, all of these are small things that cumulate into my big fat opinion. But there’s also one big fat thing that takes my opinion from fat to dangerously obese.

Jean Louise is a 26-year-old independent woman who lives in New York among, possibly, a myriad of people from all ways of life. We see some reference to black people being a part of her everyday life, which is why she’s so indignant when her townsfolk look down on them. We see her as a modern-ish, socially aware young person. All that’s brilliant.

But she doesn’t understand human nature.

She can’t process the fact that her father is an ordinary man with complex emotions. That he has his own opinions and that he doesn’t have to embody her beliefs.

Of course, she’s disappointed in her father. She has expectations of him, as we all do of people we admire and look up to, and when Atticus doesn’t live up to those expectations, she’s upset. Just like I was with this book. That’s understandable.

But her reaction to all this is bizarre. She responds as if she’s never been disappointed in her life before. To me, that signals a bigger problem. She’s either never had people oppose her views or never had a genuine relationship with anyone else. The foundation of any relationship is trust, knowing you’ll still get hurt along the way. Even long-lasting couples would have conflicting opinions and disappointments. 26 years is a long time not to have known that.

Dr. Finch explains to Jean Louise that she’s so upset with Atticus because she regarded him as god. As someone who can never make a mistake. Now, we’ve all done this. We place our heroes (actors, musicians, writers, politicians, even) on high pedestals, thinking they’re perfect and incapable of anything less than godliness. That’s how humans work—we stupidly seek idols all the time. But we don’t do that with people closest to us, regardless of how much we adore them. If you’re close to someone, you’ll notice their flaws. That’s why it’s easier to set the god status to people we can’t reach—the distance enables our blindness.

That’s not the case with Jean Louise. She loves her dad dearly and grew up with him around. Even if she hadn’t realised his humanity then, she should’ve when she left home. Coming back every year should’ve opened her eyes little by little.

There’s a lot of psychological complexity to unpack in this story. Strangely, that’s also good—it’s made me mull it over, and that’s always a positive thing in book marketing.

In the middle of the book, we hear Jean Louise was born colour blind—a fact she doesn’t know (how?!). An odd detail to throw in at mid-point. However, towards the end, we go back to it, as Dr. Finch informs her she’s colour blind, referencing that to their conversation about black and white people. I’m not a fan of using “colour blind” in that context for many reasons. Disappointment 6.

The racism in this book is brazen, and coming from educated adults, it’s… ignorant. That does feel real.

I’ve learnt from various online reviews and commentary that this book was supposedly a ‘crappy initial draft’ never meant to be published. It’s also not a sequel. Makes sense. There’s just too much going on for it to be one complete piece of work. Apparently, this was the original, which Harper Lee then upgraded and published as the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird. That does make me feel better—if Lee had indeed turned Watchman into Mockingbird, then damn, she’s one good writer, with a kickass editor.

The natural way of things

The Natural Way of Things is a contemporary novel by Australian author Charlotte Wood.

It came heavily recommended. My friend, who’s incidentally an English teacher—no not the teacher of the language but a woman of the language itself—wrote a lengthy Facebook post (we’re millennials, we’re embracing technology) about how much she enjoyed this book.

Enjoyed in the sense that she was gripped by the crude reality that this story portrays. As a woman, a feminist, and as someone with a lot of female (and male) friends, she couldn’t believe how easily women can turn against each other. Or rather, she knew it was all possible, but was still shocked to physically hold a book that reflects, in a most provocative manner, that exact fear. It was strange for my friend to read through a life story of a character (albeit imaginary) who experienced the nastiness of fellow humans—both female and male.

It’s not the nastiness that gives this book its bitter aftertaste. Lots of books are nasty. It’s the level of nastiness.

For me, this book was a bit dull for a long time before it got interesting. It got interesting when the characters in the book—all women, all of who were kidnapped, bound in chains, and made to slave away without even knowing why or by whom—realised that the food was running out. That likely says a lot more about me than in does about the book itself, but the moral of the story is that when times become hard and everything seems bleak, when women become desperate for freedom (in a manner of speaking), they’ll betray anyone. Even those they considered friends, sisters, and fellow sufferers.

That’s it. That’s what the story says. In a fast-paced, realistic, Australian narrative, we follow the lives of a handful of women who under intense stress, display what it means to be human.

So many people who’ve read this book call it horrible and evil and other adjectives that mean the same. But it’s none of that. It’s chillingly real. If it were all men instead of women, the outcome probably would’ve been similar. However, because this book spotlights human weakness in a way that most of us know but can’t come to terms with, it’s sparked a lot of debate.

For instance, one of the most common responses to this book is whether women could ever be such bitches to each other. In this modern world where women are collectively braving the trials of male chauvinism and patriarchy, will women turn against each other when provoked?

The answer is a responding yes. And that’s hard to deal with. But deal with it we should because that behaviour has nothing to do with them being women—it’s human nature. Hence the title.

Is this the greatest book I’ve ever read? No.

Has this book changed the way I see the world? Probably not. (But that’s also because I’ve always believed humans will be the downfall of humans. I’m not exactly a ray of sunshine.)

But is this book even worth reading? Hell yes.

Because it forces us to look at reality and accept it. To understand that in our weakest moments, we may lose everything we’re made of. And that’s ok, because humans aren’t perfect. We will all break at some point and being aware of it might help us stay intact for just a little longer.

Dorian Gray

a golden picture frame - Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

I always knew I didn’t like ebooks. But common sense had to prevail, and so, like many of my friends, I caved under societal pressure to start reading books on my electronic devices.

Surprising even myself, I quickly read a handful of books. I was getting accustomed to the idea of pulling out my phone while waiting for the bus, while on the bus, and during boring conversations. And it was with that enthusiasm that I downloaded The Picture of Dorian Gray, the classic Wilde tale about a wild young man.

Two years later, having opened and closed it many times at bus stops and on sleepless nights in bed, I’d read seven chapters.

Forcing to refrain an eye roll when I mentioned I’d never read the book before, my good-natured friend offered to lend me her copy. It’ll help imagine our exchange if you know she’s English and a teacher.

Within 24 hours, I finished the book. I swear, ebooks are not for me.

Even though I’ve now moved on to reading my next book, Dorian Gray remains fresh in mind. When I was still reading it on my laptop, as a break one day, I looked up reviews for the book on Goodreads.

A tirade on Lord Henry showered upon me. People described him as pure evil for poisoning young Gray’s mind and heart. Dorian admits it himself suggesting the book Henry had given him had led him downhill. Sure, Henry is manipulative. But you could also argue that as the older man, he only took on a more protective role of Dorian, behaving much like an older brother or father would do . And he played that role well, too, scorning at Basil for professing his affection for Gray.

To me, though, Henry is a representation of our society. There’s nothing vile about Henry—he’s only a disarmingly accurate illustration of the many characters we encounter in everyday life.

This phenomenon stayed with me as I read through the book. The further I ventured, the more I liked him. He is toxic company in every sense, but at the same time, he’s also the overzealous relative who never misses a family dinner. He’s the type of friend we’d keep close even though we know they’re more harmful than helpful.

Henry is charming. Remember: Dorian is never bullied. Every idea and impression Henry instils in Dorian is the younger man’s asking. Not once do we see Henry apply force or forgery to get Dorian to do his bidding. Henry is a complex and well-rounded character, just as the ones we see in our lives. Is he detestable? Absolutely. But to call him evil is to limit his impact in the story. It reduces him to a mere two dimensional element.

Henry doesn’t just deserve readers’ hatred. He also deserves adoration, for he inspires in us, a deep-rooted desire to avoid people of his like.

As readers, we often blindly support the hero of a story, even though, as in this case, the hero is a weak-kneed and self-serving young man. This novel and Henry is a reminder to us that there’s more to people than what meets the eye. I mean, this guy’s a genius:

“When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband. When a man marries again, it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck; men risk theirs.”

Forty Stitches

I think I write decent haiku. I take pictures of everything that makes me gawk, and then I twist them, interpreting them in my weird way. Sometimes I even manage to impress myself.

But I never thought of how my haiku sounds to others.

Now I know. Because I’ve read CT Salazar’s book.

The title made me “ooh” and smile as if I understood what it was about. ‘Forty Stitches Sewing a Body against a Ramshackle Night’—hell yeah—this is my jam. I write haiku—I know exactly where this is going. Or did I?

Cover of CT Salazar's book, Forty Stitches Sewing a Body Against a Ramshakle Night
Cover of CT Salazar’s book, Forty Stitches Sewing a Body Against a Ramshakle Night

It’s a compilation of forty short poems, a hybrid-haiku form which the poet calls ‘stitches’. See, I didn’t realise that when reading the book. And so when I did, much later, it was as if someone had turned the lights on, laying bare the contents that had been so artfully cocooned within the title.

Ah, the pleasures of decoding poetry!

That title paints a powerful image to hook readers. Just enough, but not at all. That’s the biggest advantage—and the problem—with writing haiku. Everyone knows (or thinks they know) what to expect, but they know nothing of what they’re about to read. 

As a writer, you have to satisfy their wants—throw them a bone, if you will—and then when they think they’ve got the hang of what you’re saying, pull the carpet from right under their feet.

That’s what haiku is about. It embodies minimalism. It’s the ultimate form of contraction. Salazar does all of that. And then some more.

Opening the metaphorical pages, I thought I knew what style, tone, and tenor he’ll use. 

I assumed.

One should never assume anything about haiku.

trimming your hair
in the bathroom hundreds
of commas curl

No punctuation, no explanation, no direction for the reader. 

Go figure.

But that’s what’s so beautiful about haiku—and Salazar’s haiku, in particular—it makes you see—really see—the small, everyday things in life. The next time I see a strand of hair on my bathroom floor, I’ll think of commas. (And then I’ll moan about losing said hair.) That’s what good poetry does to you—it leaves you with lingering moments. 

As I read through the pages, more word treasures jumped out, shaking me completely off balance.

watched a cardinal
fly through me—sorry
through a window

Like most poetry enthusiasts, when I came across e e cummings for the first time, I was fascinated. As an English student, I cringed—no capitalisations and no language order. But I adored his rebel blood. He broke the rules and still made all the sense in the world.

Salazar does too. I mean, look:

river river
we’ve both been
running

See? It’s subtle, it’s delicate, but it punches you in the throat, and as you temporarily recover from gasping for air, it hits you again. 

I’ve read and reread this book plenty of times, and I still can’t quite put my finger on what exactly it’s about. Sure, I have five or six story lines running in my head, and every time I read the book, one of them seems to take precedence over the other.

However, as someone who writes a whole lot of haiku (or as I call it), I don’t mind if my readers don’t see what I see. That’s the beauty of any creative endeavour—it should always be open to interpretation. And so with Salazar’s book, even though I still haven’t cracked the code, I’m quite happy to revel in the pristine beauty of his words. After all, it’s not a test I need to clear—poetry is an artistic form of expression and food for the soul. And I will consume it in all greediness, inhaling it in gusts and letting it bloat me with pleasure.

Of Love and Other Demons

Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel García Márquez - cover

I won’t lie. This book took me an embarrassingly long time to finish. Not because I’m a slow reader, but because, as is the case with so many books, I found it easier to put it down and not pick it up again. Another prominent book I did that to is One Hundred Years of Solitude, also by the same author. I might be sensing a pattern here…

Regardless, it didn’t help that the story picked up well into the story. It was designed to be a slow start, much like One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s almost as if Marquez was testing his readers to see if they’ll hang around long enough, if they were loyal enough, to endure the creeping pace of the initial chapters before bestowing upon them some of the greatest and heart-wrenching prose of all time.

In other words, Of Love and Other Demons features beautiful writing—writing that will stay with you well after you finish reading the book.

“Disbelief is more resistant than faith because it is sustained by the senses.”

I’m not pious. And I don’t enjoy the company of people who shove their religious beliefs on others. This story is scattered with Christian beliefs and the ancient traditions of bishops and exorcism. Even though this book personifies everything I’m against, I cherished the way it’s done.

I mean, just read this:

“The bishop could not continue, because the thunder resounded over the house and then rolled out to sea, and a biblical downpour cut them off from the rest of the world. The bishop lay back in a rocking chair and was shipwrecked in nostalgia.”

Isn’t that beautiful?

I started reading this book before COVID-19 was born. And now, as I got to the last page of the book and rethink the narrative, I’m amazed at the uncanny and coincidental reference to today’s reality.

This is the story of a young girl who’s bitten by a dog with rabies. Unfortunately, she didn’t contract the disease, and that abnormality made those around her, subject her to eternal damnation.

Gabriel García Márquez has given us a wonderful tale in Of Love and Other Demons.