Here are two books that consumed me in the past week. I read them back to back and think there is good reason to read them together. They are very different in major ways, one being a novel that takes place in the 1950s and the other being nonfiction, a letter to the writer’s son, written this year. Both are short and both deal with issues of family, race, and society in our country.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee, 288 pages
Much has already been written about Harper Lee’s new book. Forget what you might have heard or read about it — a prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird — and read it for yourself. I think it might even be a better novel than her Pulitzer Prize winning earlier book.
In keeping with my generally held view that I prefer readers/viewers to discover the details of a book or film for themselves, I am not going to describe much about the book nor write why I think it’s better than Mockingbird. Though I will say that if you enjoyed Harper Lee’s writing in Mockingbird, I suspect you’ll find her writing style is consistent with that book.
Know that it contains most of the same characters as in Mockingbird, at least most of the important characters. In this book, Scout (Jean Louise) returns for her fifth annual visit to her hometown of Maycomb Junction, Alabama, from New York, where she is currently living. Set in the 1950s (20 years after the setting of Mockingbird), Jean Louise is now in her mid-to-late 20s, and Atticus, her father, is 72.
This new book can be read quickly. The story that it tells is more complex than Mockingbird and is certainly one that ‘begs’ for discussion.
In case you didn’t know, Go Set a Watchman was actually written first, but Lee’s publishers encouraged her to set it aside and focus on one aspect of her story. As a result, she then wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, and her first manuscript (“Watchman”) was ‘lost’ for more than 50 years.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, 145 pages
Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me also tells a story, and more, and is written in the form of a letter to his son. The author is in his 40s, and his son is 14.
Coates is largely known for his articles in The Atlantic, where he is a Senior Editor and has been writing for the last few years. He also blogs for The Atlantic’s website. His first book, a memoir entitled The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, was published in 2008.
This new, short book is both an explanation to his son about what it means to be black in America and also a memoir. I suspect Coates wrote the book quickly (it is often repetitive and could use a good editing), but it is a passionate and honest letter to his son. And, of course, it is more than a letter and more than a memoir.
Again, my preference is for readers to discover what Coates has to say without the filter of a reviewer’s lens.
Similar to Go Set a Watchman, Between the World and Me ‘begs’ for discussion.
The Atlantic has a lengthy adaption from the full book which captures much of what is sometimes repetitive in the book itself. See: Letter to My Son