To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

To Kill A MockingbirdTo Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My rating: ★★★★★

Sitting down to write this review, I feel a bit silly. I mean, To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic; it’s been read, analyzed, and critiqued since the day it was published. What more could I possibly add to what’s already been said countless times? The answer, of course, is nothing of import. I can’t offer any astounding new idea or interpretation, nor do I have the literary background necessary to garner any respect for my views. At its core, there’s nothing particularly unique about my opinion; but everyone who reads a particular book has an individual experience. Here’s mine.

To Kill a Mockingbird was assigned to me as required reading for my tenth grade English class. I didn’t read it. After all, if one were to poll high-schoolers on their required-reading experiences, the response would overwhelmingly negative. It’s no secret that many teenagers are not going to particularly enjoy the books assigned to them in school–either because the assigned books genuinely aren’t interesting to them, because the books are too difficult (or, more rarely, too easy) for their reading level, or because they don’t want to be told what to read.

I’m in the third camp. Though I’ve loved to read for as long as I can remember, I hate being told what to read. I’ve had experience with some truly boring books before, but my refusal to read school-assigned books wasn’t the result of those. It was the simple fact that I didn’t want people picking my books for me.

So I gave To Kill a Mockingbird a pass during the 2008-09 school year. The school system made it easy for me: I’m reasonably intuitive, so multiple choice and short-answer quizzes were just a matter of picking up the little hints scattered across the page, and I’m fairly good at “bullshitting”, so essay tests were as simple as picking a key phrase out of the prompt and building an argument around it with what I knew from pop-culture osmosis, talking about the book with other students, and the foreknowledge of what kinds of arguments usually got high scores. What I absolutely couldn’t answer, I skipped. My grades didn’t reflect the evasion.

It helped that we watched the movie. You know the one: the black-and-white, 1962 picture staring Gregory Peck. It’s never a good idea to take novel-based tests based on an adaptation, but familiarity with the bones of a plot certainly helps.

I ended up graduating without ever reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I didn’t really think much of it; maybe I’d dodged a bullet in the form of a boring book, or maybe I’d skipped out on something I’d really enjoy. It could’ve gone either way, and I didn’t really care. I knew enough about the plot from the movie and my friends that following up on the book didn’t make it anywhere near my immediate to-do list.

That is, until I set up the GR Shelf Challenge for myself. In September of 2012, I found myself browsing Goodreads at random; with no distinct purpose in mind, I meandered over to the Shelves/Genres. I’d seen them before, but this time it sparked an idea in my head; I was already doing monthly themed reads (I run the Read by Theme. book club, as a matter of fact), but I had been thinking about tackling a secondary challenge. I hadn’t found one I favored… until I that moment.

The GR Shelf Challenge is simple: go through the list of shelves, starting with the most popular and working one’s way down to the least popular. Read the most popular book of one shelf every month. Review it, and you’re done.

When I looked at the To Read shelf, the first book on it that I hadn’t read was To Kill a Mockingbird. So it was time to unbury my copy and read the book I’d avoided for four years.

I’m glad I did. To Kill a Mockingbird is leagues better than I expected it to be. What did I expect? Most prominently, I had thought the book would be more “legal story” than “coming of age story”; I knew the main character was Scout, but I thought Tom Robinson was the focal character. (According to my younger brother, who read the book and watched the movie last year, this mistaken impression spawned from the Gregory Peck adaptation.)

So instead of finding an A Time to Kill sort of legal thriller unfolding before me, I found myself watching a young girl grow into the harsh reality of the Depression era. The South suffered racism, poor education, socially acceptable child abuse, sexism, and all the related legal issues and rights breaches. Tom Robinson suffered, but so did Mayella Ewell, Atticus Finch, Boo Radley, Scout and her friends, and even Scout’s misguided teachers.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, every character suffered in their own way. The African American characters suffered racism, segregation, hatred, and violence. Characters who outwardly opposed racism suffered prejudice. Children suffered prejudice and violence from adults. Misguided teachers actively discouraged their students’ urge to learn. Women suffered violence and sexual abuse from men, up to and including their own fathers. Even the most reprehensible characters suffered–they lived in a world that encouraged and rewarded their behavior and lack of personal growth.

The human world still faces these issues today, but thankfully at a far lesser scale. In fact, that’s what rings so true about To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a real problem, and it’s being examined by a person who actually experienced it. This isn’t a 2012 novel lamenting the racism of history; this is a 1960 novel reflecting the exact kind of life challenges that the author lived through. And that adds such weight to the story.

What it all comes down for me is that To Kill a Mockingbird was worth reading. Not because a teacher said so, but because To Kill a Mockingbird is a powerful story about America’s past, growing up, challenging injustice, and accepting defeat in exchange for small victories. And it has a wonderfully poignant emotional ending.

To Kill a Mockingbird still isn’t the kind of book I would normally read, but it’s the kind of book that makes me glad I did.

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The GR Shelf Challenge

The GR Shelf Challenge is a self-imposed reading/reviewing challenge I designed for myself in September 2012.

The idea plays off of Goodreads’ shelves, and the task is simple: every month, read and review the top book of one shelf, going through the shelves in order from most popular to least.

I skip over books that I’ve already read, books already scheduled for another month of this challenge, books I’ve marked as “not-for-me”, and sequels to books I haven’t yet read. When I run into these, I move down the list until I find a suitable book to read for the challenge.

So what am I reading?*

October 2012 (To-Read Shelf): To Kill a Mockingbird
November 2012 (Currently Reading Shelf): A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1)
December 2012 (Fiction Shelf): The Great Gatsby
January 2013 (Favorites Shelf): Pride and Prejudice
February 2013 (Fantasy Shelf): The Two Towers (The Lord of the Rings, #2)
March 2013 (Own Shelf): 1984
April 2013 (Wishlist Shelf): Divergent
May 2013 (2012 Shelf): The Fault in Our Stars
June 2013 (Non-Fiction Shelf): The Diary of a Young Girl aka Anne Frank’s Diary
July 2013 (Romance Shelf): The Notebook
August 2013 (Books I Own Shelf): Wuthering Heights
September 2013 (Owned Shelf): The Catcher in the Rye

*The shelves do shift around from time to time, so these aren’t 100% certain.

Champion Rose by Laura E. Williams

Champion RoseChampion Rose by Laura E. Williams

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

The first few books of this series were incredibly childish, more so than is warranted given their 7+ age recommendation. As the series progressed, however, the authors got their act together and realized that you don’t need to write down to children, and I certainly appreciated that. (It made revisiting this childhood memory far less painful than I worried it might be.)

Unfortunately, L.E. Wiliams must not yet have realized that lesson when she wrote this installment. There’s a lot of “tell” instead of “show” and a lot of stereotyped and over-exaggeratedly “childish” comments and worries. It’s not unforgivable by any means, but it definitely has a somewhat condescending sense toward its intended audience that seriously grates the nerves of its peripheral audience.

If this was her first installment in the series, I’ll forgive it completely; the other authors went through the same trial-and-error method with their writing styles for the series. But as far as determining the order of the post-Trapped books… so many of these were released in such a short time period that the publication dates aren’t a lot of help (and many of them are either missing or guesswork in the first place), and there’s not a lot of information available on this series, so I’m rather out of luck with trying to find out if this is actually Rose’s first appearance as a main character. I’ll be reading a few more of her installments very shortly, and I definitely hope to see Williams’ voice improve; otherwise, I’ll be deeply disappointed.

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The Bike Lesson by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

The Bike LessonThe Bike Lesson by Stan Berenstain and Jan Berenstain

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Have you ever seen the Berenstain Bears like this:

No? Then you haven’t seen the Berenstain Bears at their best. This was the era before every book tried to shove a ham-fisted moral down children’s throats. This was the time before Papa Bear became a belligerent asshole. This was the era when Brother Bear was called Small Bear because Sister Bear hadn’t been born yet.

If only this could have lasted.

Just take a moment to compare these two covers:

The image on the left bears the original character designs. The image on the right bears the new ones. (No pun intended.)

Notice the differences? For one thing, they’re both smiling in the 1964 artwork (Papa Bear more so than Small Bear). But in the redesigned version, Papa Bear is suddenly racing with his brow furrowed, and Brother Bear looks scared for his life.

Now, I’ve only read the 1964 version, so I can’t say for sure how deep these differences run. I can’t tell you, for example, if the story was given the same treatment as the cover–that is, if it was altered to match the new personalities.

And they definitely have new personalities. In “Brother Bear” stories, Papa Bear is a downright jerk; he’s temperamental and close-minded, and that’s just the beginning. In The Bike Lesson, Papa Bear overconfident and blundering, but he means well; he’s generally trying to help his son.

In modern stories, Brother Bear is a “good son”, leaving Sister Bear to be the focus of many–perhaps most–of the moral dilemmas. Depending on the book, Brother Bear either overcomes his vices with his sister, or else he’s downright saintly. (The “saintly” tends to show up more often in the chapter books than the picture books.) In The Bike Lesson, Small Bear is an earnest and excitable child in whose eyes his father can do no wrong.

Both characters are vastly more endearing in their earlier incarnations, which begs the question: what went wrong? What caused this dynamic shift? In-universe, one could say the entire family changed with Sister Bear’s birth the way a real family would; but this didn’t happen when Honey Bear was born, so it’s obvious that the in-universe reason isn’t the “actual” reason.

Something changed in or around the Berenstains that caused or enabled the Bears’ complete redesign. I’d love to know what that something was, and I’d love to know if it extended to slightly rewriting the plot of this. Honestly, I suspect it did.

In any case, this edition of The Bike Lesson, regardless of what’s in the reprinted editions, was a cute little story made more endearing by the nostalgia for a day when the Berenstains were writing Bears books I could actually stomach.

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Beach House by R.L. Stine

Beach House (Point Horror, #22)Beach House by R.L. Stine

My rating: ★★☆☆☆

R.L. Stine YA books disturb me. No, not for the reason you’re thinking. They’re not “scary”. At best, they’re mildly entertaining. At worst, they’re ludicrously moronic. I find a significant number of R.L. Stine books disturbing because half of his teenage female protagonists are in obviously abusive relationships.

I don’t know. Maybe it’s an eighties thing. But it seems like at least half his books, including this one, feature a main female character, high-school age, who is in a steady relationship with a boy she is terrified of. The girls specifically state being frightened by their boyfriends’ raging tempers, possessive jealousy, threats and displays of violence.

And then, almost invariably, the next sentence will say that it makes them feel special.

Huh? Your abusive piece of shit boyfriend makes you feel special when he screams at the top of his lungs, breaks your things, and threatens you because you spoke to another male? You need your heads examined, R.L. Stine protagonists. Does R.L. Stine land have no healthy egos? No healthy relationships? No therapists? No parents who care if their daughters are abused? Nothing? Wow. I feel horrible for you, fictional late eighties/early nineties women. Like whoa.

For added fun, he doesn’t seem to know how sharks work. Buddy and Maria swim within a few feet of a recently-moved-in school of sharks, and the sharks show no interest in their presence. “They won’t attack until they smell blood,” Buddy explains.

lolwut? No. Just no. First of all, most shark species don’t live in schools, and none of the three most dangerous species do. Tiger sharks, perhaps the most dangerous (being considered the “garbage cans” of the sea) feed in schools, however, so I suppose I’ll ignore the fact Beach House implies that an entire school of man-eating sharks moves to a beach with heavy human traffic just for lulz. I’ll just assume an entire ecosystem of fish spawned off this beach a few days prior to the story, which is the only explanation I can think of for a ton of sharks to show up and stick around.

But even that’s a minor problem when we get to, “They won’t attack until they smell blood.” What universe do you live in? Most shark attacks on humans aren’t about food/hunting/blood. They’re the result of a torpedo with fangs spotting a weird, gangly, too-scrawny-to-make-a-good-meal animal–one it may or may not ever have seen before–thrashing around like a dying fish. And, well, here’s the thing… sharks don’t have hands. They can’t grab your ankle and go, “Hey, what are you?” They grab you with your teeth and go, “Mind if I find out if you’re yummy?” It’s just too bad that by the time they’ve realized you’re not yummy, whatever limb they grabbed is probably mangled, severed, or swallowed.

So, yeah. These two idiot teenagers swim out into the middle of the ocean right on top of a school of apparent man-eaters, and not a single shark takes an exploratory bite. These two morons are pretty damn lucky already. And then Buddy pulls out his knife. “They won’t attack until they smell blood,” happens, and he enacts his brilliant plan to murder the girl who bullied him: slash her to bits atop a school of sharks. I assume he then calmly swam out of the cloud of blood and ravenous frenzy it apparently spawned while the sharks conveniently attacked–and not even effectively, as she managed to survive long enough to be rescued–only the already-dying girl while leaving him completely alone? You guys might just be the weirdest sharks ever.

But I suppose I have to be fair. This had the typical R.L. Stine YA bullshit with some extra time-travel bullshit just for flavor, but it wasn’t horrible. I seem to recall enjoying it when I read it in middle school, so I suppose it’s fair to say that middle- or elementary-school children should enjoy this one.

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The Berenstain Bears’ Mad, Mad, Mad Toy Craze by Stan and Jan Berenstain

The Berenstain Bears' Mad, Mad, Mad Toy CrazeThe Berenstain Bears’ Mad, Mad, Mad Toy Craze by Stan Berenstain

My rating: ★☆☆☆☆

Apparently, one of the Berenstains really had a problem with Beanie Babies. Normally, Berenstain Bears books have a moral; in a Berenstain Bears book referencing Beanie Babies, one would expect a “don’t get caught up in fads” moral. And that’s here… if you squint really, really hard.

Perhaps that’s what they wanted readers to take away from the story, but after finishing it, I stared at the page in disbelief for a moment, then checked the publishing date. Apparently back in 1999, the Berenstains hated Beanie Babies so freakin’ much that they felt the need to write a whole book about it. If they were going for a fad moral, they missed their mark by a long short. There is not a single reference to the existence of other fads in this book. As a matter of fact, I just double-checked, and the word fad isn’t even in the book. So the moral one would expect is already out the window, and in it’s place, one is left with nothing to take away from this besides, “Wow, the Berenstains sure do hate Beanie Babies.”

The reasoning they offer as to why Beanie Babies–oh, excuse me, “Beary Bubbies”–is absolutely ridiculous. “You can’t play dolly with them,” the book says. “You can’t play choo-choo with them…You couldn’t play baseball with them…” Um, duh? They’re not dolls, they’re not trains, and they’re definitely not baseballs. They’re stuffed animals. If you can’t find a game to play with your stuffed animals (I always did), you can at least cuddle them or something. And for the record, Mr. and Mrs. Berenstain, I can’t play “dolly”, “choo-choo”, or baseball with your book, either.

“All you could do was look at them.” Or you could use your imagination. Because your target audience and your characters are young children.

“The only thing you could really do with them is brag about how many you had….And no matter how many you had, there was always somebody who had more.” Because, obviously, that’s what toys are for.

See, that’s a moral they could have squeezed out of that if they weren’t so wrapped up in their incredibly odd anti-Beanie Baby rage. See, there are two perfectly valid reasons to own Beanie Babies: you either play with them or you collect them.

Moral Option A: Buy toys (and possessions in general) that you have an interest in, not toys that other people have an interest in. And certainly not toys you think can make you a quick profit (which is Papa Bear’s interest in Beary Bubbies).

Moral Option B: Don’t make toys (and possessions in general) a contest. Get what you want, get what you need, and leave everything else the hell alone.

But neither of these ideas is explored in the story; they’re there, but you have to squint if you want to spot them, and so the target audience isn’t likely to notice any kind of lesson. So when one gets to the line, “And no matter how many you had, there was always somebody who had more.” and turn the page, one expects to have at least a brief comment about why toys need to be valued as toys and not a contest. But nope. Instead we get:

“Now what do you suppose that was all about?” (Papa Bear)
“I really don’t know.” (Brother Bear)

So, really, the book had the same reaction to its plot that I did.

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