To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

>> Sunday, July 26, 2015

TITLE: To Kill a Mockingbird
AUTHOR: Harper Lee

PAGES: 384
PUBLISHER: Grand Central

SETTING: 1930s Southern US
TYPE: Fiction
SERIES: Hmmm...

The unforgettable novel of a childhood in a sleepy Southern town and the crisis of conscience that rocked it, To Kill A Mockingbird became both an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was first published in 1960. It went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1961 and was later made into an Academy Award-winning film, also a classic.

Compassionate, dramatic, and deeply moving, To Kill A Mockingbird takes readers to the roots of human behavior - to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos. Now with over 18 million copies in print and translated into forty languages, this regional story by a young Alabama woman claims universal appeal. Harper Lee always considered her book to be a simple love story. Today it is regarded as a masterpiece of American literature.

I thought this was going to be a reread. When we decided to pick To Kill a Mockingbird for my book club, I thought "Good, I haven't read it in ages!". But when I started reading it, I quickly realised that I actually never had before. I might have watched the film, and I have certainly read many a discussion about it, but this was my first proper read of the book, and it was an interesting experience.

I read it in May, long before Go Set A Watchman came out, and intended to post a review before then. I made my usual disjointed notes as soon as I finished it, but then I hit a really busy patch in the last few months and all blogging went out the window. It would be pretty much impossible to write a review now that's not coloured by what I've heard about Watchman, so what I'll do is to simply copy those few notes (with some minor edits for grammar and readability -they really were disjointed!) below and be done with it:

- I didn't expect the humour. There were scenes that had me laughing out loud, like Scout's first teacher and the ladies' tea party.

- The characters, even many of the secondary ones, are so well-realised that I could see the events in this book being written from several points of view. The story would then be about something else, though. Which might not be a bad thing...

- From all I knew about it, I expected the book to be about Tom Robinson's case and the trial. It wasn't. It was about Scout and Jem growing up and understanding the world they're living in. Tom Robinson's story was unimportant, other than as an example of injustice. The whole point of it was to be the catalyst for Scout and Jem's coming of age. Very uncomfortable about that. Feels like when the whole point of a disabled character is to change the life of the able-bodied protagonist, that sort of thing.

- This reminded me of Lean In, in that it seems to be all about learning to live in a fundamentally unfair, imperfect system and how to manipulate it to get a little bit of justice. I lost a lot of respect for Atticus for seeing enough value in the system to want to continue living in it, to think it was worth the effort. Probably immature of me. I wanted him to want to change the system. I wanted him to recognise that a system that works as his society did has no value. I wanted him to want to say "fuck the system" and want to tear it down and burn it to pieces. Because that society? That's what should have happened to it. And someone who would be part of a lynch mob is not "basically a good man", just with some blind spots. I found that attitude really troubling.

MY GRADE: It feels like sacrilege, but although I recognise how good a writer Lee was and I enjoyed the story while I was reading it, too much about it bothered me. It was a B for me.


Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, by Mike Brown

>> Friday, July 24, 2015

TITLE: Why I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming
AUTHOR: Mike Brown

PAGES: 288
PUBLISHER: Spiegel & Grau

SETTING: Contemporary
TYPE: Non Fiction

The solar system most of us grew up with included nine planets, with Mercury closest to the sun and Pluto at the outer edge. Then, in 2005, astronomer Mike Brown made the discovery of a lifetime: a tenth planet, Eris, slightly bigger than Pluto. But instead of adding one more planet to our solar system, Brown’s find ignited a firestorm of controversy that culminated in the demotion of Pluto from real planet to the newly coined category of “dwarf” planet. Suddenly Brown was receiving hate mail from schoolchildren and being bombarded by TV reporters—all because of the discovery he had spent years searching for and a lifetime dreaming about.

A heartfelt and personal journey filled with both humor and drama, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is the book for anyone, young or old, who has ever imagined exploring the universe—and who among us hasn’t?

The excitement about the wonderful pictures of Pluto coming from the New Horizons probe reminded me that I had this audiobook in my mp3 player. There wasn't going to be a better time to listen to it!

This is basically a memoir, covering the years in the early-mid 2000s when Brown, an astronomer at Caltech, was heading a succession of projects looking for planets. These projects culminated in a discovery that forced astronomers to reconsider the very definition of what "planets" are. And thus, Pluto's demotion from one of the planets to a "dwarf planet", one of many, and Mike Brown's alter-ego of "Pluto killer".

I loved every minute I spent listening to this audiobook. The science is pitched just right. I know very little about astronomy, but I'm a reasonably intelligent layperson. Brown's explanations had the perfect amount of technical detail, explained in a way that made sense but didn't feel oversimplified or patronising. I have a much better idea now of what an astronomer like him does day to day (including doing a surprising amount of reading about mythology, if they ever discover anything significant!). Most importantly, Brown really conveyed the wonder and awe of his work, what makes the drudgery worth it!

But it's not all descriptions of solid science. There's a surprising amount of skullduggery and plotting and detective work, and this is even before we get to the section on the politicking around the reclassification of Pluto. Those sections were incredibly exciting. I was lucky enough that I was just getting on a train as that part started, so I spent all 2 hours of the journey just sitting there, listening intently.

There's also a really nice balance between the astronomy and the personal stuff. Brown meets his wife around the time when his planet-hunting projects are getting started, and his daughter is born, with great timing, exactly in the middle of a spate of important discoveries. While not the focus of the book, these elements really enhance the astronomy sections and give them yet another layer of meaning.

It all works so well because Brown is a wonderful narrator (that is, someone else reads the audiobook, I mean narrator as in the person from whose 1st-person POV we see the action). He comes across as endearing, both in his enthusiasm about astronomy and the way he's clearly besotted with his wife and daughter. And I appreciated that in the sections where he's basically accusing other scientists of wrong-doing, he seems to be making the effort to be even-handed and give them the benefit of the doubt. I did try to keep in mind that I was getting only Brown's side of the story, so I have done a bit of googling to read the other scientists' accounts, but I didn't find those very convincing. They did make me wonder, though, if the situation had been reversed and it had been Spanish astronomers accusing a US team of the same things, with the same evidence, if they would have had the same reaction from the astronomy establishment.

A fantastic book, and one I highly recommend, even for readers who are not particularly interested in astronomy (by the end of this, you will be!)



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