It’s A Sin To Kill A Mockingbird

April’s book was To Kill A Mockingbird, a book firmly ensconced in the American literary canon. It is therefore something of an enigma that, while many of us read it in high school, it has never been selected in our group.

Until now.

While the story of Atticus, Jem and Scout, and the mystery of Boo Radley is well-known to most people (with Gregory Peck’s face indelibly associated with Atticus Finch), I had forgotten much of the book’s additional side stories and secondary characters that give it even greater depth:

  • Mrs. Dubose, the crotchety, insulting elderly woman who torments Jem from her front porch, and whom we learn later is a morphine addict.
  • Dolphus Raymond and his black mistress with whom he has multiracial children, who also pretends to drink liquor from a bottle in a paper bag to give people a reason to write him off.
  • Heck Tate, the sheriff of Maycomb. Where was the name ‘Heck’ when we were trying to name our baby boys?
  • Calpurnia, the Finch’s black cook and strict disciplinarian to the children.
  • The Ewell family, Bob (father) and Mayella (daughter), white trash.
  • Maudie Atkinson, woman across the street, friend of the children, and whose house burned down but she didn’t care.
  • Aunt Alexandra, relative who comes to live with the Finches and disapproves of Atticus’s laxity in allowing the children to mingle with the lower-class
  • The rabid dog

All these are renewed favorites brought vividly to life by Harper Lee and still recognizable in our world 60 years later.

Matt had the honors of giving the opening essay in which he skillfully summarized the contrasts, conflicts, hypocrisies, and major themes of the book. He described the publication history and the way in which the book began as a collection of stories that editors helped Lee turn into a unified novel. Interesting stuff.

It was observed by me and other people that again and again the several subplots in the book mirrored the main, public drama of the treatment by the white people of Maycomb of Tom Robinson, accused of raping Mayella Ewell. Tom’s sickeningly unjust conviction and subsequent death was revealed and re-portrayed in parallel accounts of social outcasts who are unknown and therefore feared, considered harmful, who are then persecuted and either die or are killed:

  1. Mrs. Dubose. The rich and bitter widow who insults Jem and his father as he walks by her house. Jem despises her, but he is led by Atticus to understand her and even respect her in the wake of her death and his discovery of her morphine addiction.
  2. Dolphus Raymond. A social outcast, not killed, but despised and ostracized for his integration with the black community.
  3. The children’s fear and suspicion toward Arthur (Boo) Radley. This is again based on lack of understanding and assumption that he is mad or violent. Most interestingly, in the children’s games they are playing out what’s happening in the adult world.
  4. The whole black population are feared and despised by most of the white people
  5. The rabid dog. The poor creature is a terror to the town, an animal, a stranger, and is shot down in the street by Atticus. It is a shocking disconnected parallel to Tom Robinson who was shot and killed while trying to escape from jail.
  6. Even in one fleeting passage in which Scout is about to kill a pill bug/roly poly. Jem is older and wiser and discourages Scout from killing it just because it’s not doing any harm.

In one way or another, these are different manifestations or illustrations of the title of the book. Kill all the blue jays you want, Atticus says, because they are hateful birds. But it is a sin to kill a mockingbird; they do no harm, but they just make lovely music for everyone to hear.

Chris summarized the theme in the phrase, empathy leads to tolerance. The old idea of walking around in someone else’s shoes. The few who do find their fears turn to understanding and building of community.

William pointed out the strata of society deeply intrenched in the South, and indeed everywhere: The Cunninghams, The Ewells (in some ways below the blacks), the Black people, the white middle/upper class as perpetuated by Aunt Alexandra. He further noted how much death there is in the book: Tom Robinson, Bob Ewell, the dog, Boo Radley, Mr & Mrs Radley, Mrs. Dubose, and of course Atticus is a widower. The deaths start to add up and become a significant feature of the book.

An interesting question came up: is Atticus a good father? He allows his children to call him by his first name, he seems disconnected from the daily concerns of their lives, and never disciplines beyond an understated, adult-like scolding although they frequently disobey his instructions. He scandalized the Ladies Mission Society and Aunt Alexandra by not enforcing the social codes that they wanted him to impose on his children. But his method was actually a good one; he doesn’t care about social codes, but where his parenting becomes active is in teaching them to think rightly, to have a soul, to consider the suffering of others, and to labor for justice and equality even if success is unlikely.

Finally, what is the pattern of character development in the book? Who grows, becomes somehow wiser or transformed through the events?

It was noted that Atticus and Bob Ewell seem to be great poles of good and evil. They do not grow or change but they are not the characters we follow in the book. Tom Robinson is a centrally tragic figure, one whose only transformation is to destruction. Clearly Jem and Scout develop over the years, symbolically in their discovery and embracing of Boo Radley and more generally in the development of a sense of racial justice.

But the real weight of the book is in showing how such development is needed in the townspeople of Maycomb and yet does not take place. Only the slightest change is detected in very few, for example in sheriff Heck Tate, who does not support Atticus’s legal defense and yet committed enough to law and duty and friendship with Atticus to protect him and uphold the law. The testimonies in the trial so clearly exonerated Tom that people seemed to be left silent, and yet it was not enough to overcome historic prejudices. But we get the impression that just by watching the court case, the weight of the evidence, and the hypocrisy and clear hatred raging in the breasts of so many, when it was all over, maybe just maybe the community is one small step closer on a long road to enacting real justice, a road we are still on and still have a long way to go.

Love’s Fateful Choices

Kristin and Erlend
Kristin and Erlend

Kristin Lavransdatter is a trilogy of novels by Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset and published in 1920. There is a recent English translation by Tiina Nunnally that is recommended. Unfortunately, Athenaeum read only the first in the trilogy for our March meeting. You only feel like you’re just getting started with her tale at the end of Book 1 (The Wreath), and there is clearly so much more to her story in Books 2 and 3. That would make over 1000 pages for one month’s selection, however.

It is a shame this title is not more widely known today. Undset was a great writer and won the Nobel Prize in literature for a lifetime of literary work. Not only is it a thrilling story, but it is set in 14th century Norway, a time and place of which modern readers have little conception. Like Jane Eyre, Emma Bovary, Tess and many other heroines, the title character is captivatingly interesting. Kristin is introduced as a little girl and her childish purity and simplicity stir the reader to cherish her innocence.

Perhaps one thing that makes the story so engaging is developing an attachment to the character early on, as I did, and then going with Kristin through childhood into adulthood. This reader cherished her sweetness and innocence as a child and delighted in the descriptions of her beauty.

I loved her as if she were my own daughter, and I ached for her to be preserved and protected and brought safely into adulthood. However, the powerful forces of teenage love, family, religious faith and the impact of some natural tragedies spell the loss of innocence. Undset does a great job of showing that bad choices are not so simple to judge, and this was a source of discussion for us.

Sigrid Undset
Sigrid Undset

How much choice Kristin had over her fate? She could have said No, right? She could have chosen differently if she had had the strength of character of, say, a 40 year old man. But can a simple teenage farm girl be held accountable for falling for a dashing older man who pursues her with relentless passion when she is away from her home and guardians? We have statutory laws delineating ages of responsibility today to address the same issue.

And although priests and nuns, convents and religious culture permeate the world of the story, we appreciate the honesty in regards to human nature in the portrayal of surrendering to temptation when other forces of faith, friends and family would hold us back.

Those who appreciate the sexual mores of past generations will find the traditional social conventions satisfying. In 1920 as well as the 14th century, sex before marriage was recognized as a sin by most, to say nothing of the taboo of a pregnancy out of wedlock or when the wedding is still some months off. And Kristin’s tortuous guilt in both the sin against God and the betrayal of her father’s trust in her, and the violation of the honor of her maidenhood, drives her to the deep into the depths of Christian psychology of sin and guilt, and the possibility of redemption.

Undset’s frequent descriptions of Norwegian landscape and climate were luscious, as well as the darkness and stuffiness of homes at night without windows. There is a description of childbirth that is long and harrowing; I’ve never read anything or seen a film depiction of a birth that even came close.

And I’ll conclude by speculating that J. R. R. Tolkein surely read this book and loved it, because so many place names in Lord of the Rings sound like places in ancient Norway. Many parts of words are used by Tolkein such as the “gaard” in Isengaard.

I’m sorry it took my so long to get around to reading this book, which I only learned about around 2010. It is a classic that everyone should read.

Cuckoo’s Nest a Winner

How long until we learn our lesson about underestimating books? February’s book, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, turned out to be, for this writer and many of our group, a delightful surprise. Why did this happen? It’s an important lesson.

Most of us had seen the movie, which was fairly one-dimensional. Also, many of us were not paying attention to contemporary American authors in 1962. So most of us came to the book with low expectations, thinking it would mainly be a protest novel against psychiatric methods of the 60’s, especially electroshock therapy.

On the contrary, Cuckoo’s Nest is a multi-dimensional book, a fact that became clear the more our discussion progressed. As frequently happens, each one of our group brought out new observations about themes, symbols, and character details that turned the book into a new light.

The narrator is Chief Bromden, the tall, half-Native American who is presumed by all to be deaf and mute, but secretly hears what medical staff think they are saying in private. His prose begins a little choppy, either to illustrate his mental illness, poor education, or the possibility that English is not his first language.

As pointed out in the opening essay, emasculation is an important theme in the book. The “Big Nurse,” Miss Ratched, frequently diminishes and controls the men, keeping them fearful and submissive. Her piercing eyes alone are enough to quell most of the inmates.

There are numerous images of reduced manhood. One inmate kills himself in a bathroom by emasculating himself and bleeding to death. The stuttering character Billy Bibbit is a minor character but he lives in fear of his domineering mother; he is safe from her oppression only to have it replaced by Nurse Ratched. When Billy loses his virginity with a smuggled-in prostitute, he momentarily is cured of his stutter for the first and only time in the book. He is liberated and emboldened and transformed, ready to stand up to Nurse Ratched. But she promises to report to his illicit behavior disapproving mother, and he takes his own life shortly after.

Another theme is being without a voice, as seen in Chief Bromden’s muteness (doubly significant for the fact that he is part Native American). The inmates struggle throughout the book to have a say in their own lives, for example, a standoff that blows up between the nurse and the men over watching the baseball game on TV.

The tragic hero of the book is Randal Patrick McMurphy, who starts out as an entertaining big-mouthed rascal, a flagrant counterpoint who’s boldness gives him very much of a voice, and whose masculinity is fully intact. His gleeful, ever-escalating contest with nurse Ratched and his rebellion against the oppressive norms of the ward holds out possibility of victory and deliverance for the men. He is a sort of Christ-figure at the end, bringing transformation in the inmates before getting lobotomized by doctors and euthanized by the Chief.

There are many sublime moments in the book beyond the day-to-day life in the ward, known as “The Combine.” Chief Bromden’s vision of the dog running around in the field at night and the subsequent vision of the dog killed by a car mirroring McMurphy’s fate is stunning. His memories of life on the reservation as a youth, and the whole fishing expedition with McMurphy and 12 friends are favorite breaks from life in the Combine.

Madam Bovary enchants, grieves

We loved Emma. We fell into her eyes. We noted her silk slippers and the way she leans out the window watching the passing yokels. We admired the whispering curls on her nape below the black chignon, breathed the musky scent from the gossamer down of her forearms. We shared the tears of her imprisonment, we scintillated with the temptations of her lovers, both shared the impulse for her freedom and feared her downfall.

Emma had it all and lost it all, a female Icarus donning untested wings, lusting for the sun. Or, was she a cork bobbing on the sea of humanity? Was she merely a languid housewife dreaming of the romantic lives of the wealthy? Could her only sin have remained mere covetousness before forces of lust, avarice, and overweening nostalgia lured the little bird from her cage?

The fancy dress balls of counts and marquises with their iced champagne, gowns of pale saffron trimmed with tiny silver pomegranates, dancing quadrilles proved too much for her. The dowagers sitting calm and formidable with headdresses like turbans. Wealth and luxury bursting from every suede upholstered couch and fluttering painted fan. How could Emma’s heart not be ravished?

But when it was over, it was back to the little town; Emma to their two-story house and Charles to his patients all around Normandy. She returned her work with little more than memories, until some notable gentleman or dapper young clerk came through town and, with the bumbling influence of her clueless husband unwittingly encouraging more encounters, Emma was swept into the ultimately self-destructive pattern that has earned the term Bovarysme.

Athenaeum wanted to know, “What was Emma’s failure? Adultery? Materialism?”

“What is Flaubert’s message? What is he trying to tell us? Is there even a message? Or is he just dragging us through a moral quagmire, in effect mocking his readers by filling their heads with illicit thoughts? Does Flaubert harbor some disdain in his heart for the church? the government? the rich? the poor? for all humanity?”

“Does the book have a moral point? Is anyone a hero? Is the ‘moral point’ the telos of a novel at all??”

In this humble scribe’s opinion, the author was doing with his exquisite skill what most authors aspire to do—to give the reader a wonderful aesthetic literary experience. Draw your own conclusions, your messages. An author loves to tell stories that make a table of engineers, nearly 200 years later, jab fingers at the table, throw their hands in the air, and order fresh pitchers of IPA until we get to the bottom of the matter.

Beyond any moral or message or ‘take away’ (Walker Percy wrote, “Nothing would be worse than a so-called philosophical or religious novel that simply used the story and plot and characters in order to get over a certain idea”)—yes, beyond any such sermonizing, a fiction author primarily wants to give his readers a great ride, be it a swashbuckling tale like The Three Musketeers or Moby Dick, or something more cerebral like To The Lighthouse or Darkness at Noon. Or an infinite spectrum of points in between with labyrinthine sagas like The Former Hero. In every case, sane writers, writers who understand their calling, refrain from preaching.

In conclusion, I mention three passages all felt soared especially high.

  1. The amputation of Hippolyta’s leg – four pages of cringing
  2. Rodolphe’s seduction of Emma while at the town agricultural award ceremony
  3. The exceedingly long carriage ride around Rouen with Leon and Emma in the back


Ishiguro’s truly great butler

Kazuo Ishiguro is not yet a household name in America, although he is getting close. If you do not recognize his name, you will probably recognize the film Remains of the Day and you may have seen the books Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant. You may also want to make a mental note that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.

After reading Remains of the Day at Athenaeum, I can see why he was deemed worthy of the prize. His subtlety and his ability to create such a delightful character as Mr. Stevens shows he has a great talent. Our group was enthusiastically thankful and praised the book, the only exception being that some found the book to drag at points. I attribute this to uncertainty in the opening pages about what Ishiguro was doing: why are we reading this long description filled with the arcana of British butler culture, the Hayes Society which admits “only the very first rank” butlers in the United Kingdom, and the names and estates of the handful of truly renown and magisterial butlers?

But like Victor Hugo’s descriptions of Paris sewers and gamin, and Melville’s extended detours into cetology and whale blubber, yet on a much smaller scale, Ishiguro’s few pages on butler culture is actually pertinent, delightful, and in reality a brief background segment of the novel.

Mr. Stevens, our narrator and butler at Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, was immediately acknowledged to be self-deceived. But the turbulent primary topic of discussion regarded Stevens’ actual character: was he noble? flawed? Was he culpable, or innocent?

When Lord Darlington, under a temporary anti-Semitic influence of pre-WWII German ambassadors, told Stevens he must dismiss a couple of Jewish maidservants, Stevens obeyed immediately and impassively, as if he were ironing the morning paper, despite Miss Kenton (the head housekeeper)’s angry protestations. His defense was the inviolable code of butlery by which he, in maintaining the strictest dignity, is duty-bound is to obey the master with complete and unflinching agnosticism. To raise the slightest eyebrow toward master was grounds for summary dismissal from the Hayes Society, to live out one’s days in bitter opprobrium.

But we all in hindsight question those Nazi soldiers who after the war claimed they were just obeying orders, and we condemn them. Should Mr. Stevens suffer the same judgment of future generations for maintaining his professional standards in carrying out a racist command, indeed one that meant the destitution and unemployability of the two young ladies involved?

All at our table agreed that Stevens failed at that moment; none would countenance the idea that even the lofty dignitaries of British aristocratic society were immune from accountability by one such as Stevens.

The real nut of the question was, Did Stevens ever experience regret for his failure to speak up? A close reading shows that, indeed, three pages from the end of the book, Stevens expresses regret over his complicity in the matter. And the details of context, and the situation of the day, lead many of us to grant some understanding to Stevens.

But was he noble? Can one be noble and amoral at the same time?

Stevens is chlidlike in his awareness of what was going on.

The closest examination of all the facts, which is what we gave it, yielded no consensus. Each opinion seemed to reflect each person’s unique and complex ethical configuration. More credit to the author.

Finally, I cannot end this brief summary without admiring the portrayal of the unrealized love affair between Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton—so sweet, so humorous, and in the end so melancholy. But it could never be otherwise; Stevens’ high ambition to be considered “a truly great butler” drove him to reject and ignore Miss Kenton’s advances, to obey his master’s sinister whims, and to deny himself, until very late and under the administration of his new master, the American Mr. Farraday, a life and interests of his own.

Should Stevens be considered A Great Butler? Would he be admitted into the Hayes Society? Who can say. But Ishiguro has been admitted into the prestigious society of Nobel laureates, and to that I say, here here.

Sons and Lovers – mixed reviews

It should come as no surprise that our members occasionally read a book considered canonical that generates divergent opinions. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence had strong advocates and strong detractors at the Austin Athenaeum. I suppose this puts us in good company; from the first day the book was published opinions about it and about Lawrence himself have been widely varied.

One British reviewer gives the book the consolation of being “A bad book by a very good writer.” Readers can apparently become quite animated by the frequency with which Paul Morel is found smelling flowers. Ford Maddox Ford, an influential figure on the newer writers of Lawrence’s generation and a friend of Lawrence himself, famously said of Lawrence’s earlier novel The White Peacock that it had “every fault that the English novel can have,” although he believed Lawrence to possess true literary genius. But don’t take it too hard, Dave. Other writers of acknowledged genius such as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens are nonetheless criticized for their literary flaws even while enjoying the highest acclaim and universal gratitude of their readers.

Let’s just get everything out on the table. Perhaps it is idiosyncratic to his Nottinghamshire, lower class coal miner upbringing, but more than a few readers have fretted about how characters profess to “hate” one person or another. More problematic, but nonetheless noticeable and dragging on the narrative, are the occasional segments where Lawrence falls to telling instead of showing, multi-paragraph sequences consisting of bland statements and explanations punctuated by non-sequiturs. These prosaic episodes are perhaps pardonable after the reader has enjoyed a longer segment displaying Lawrence’s more habitual brilliance with words.

His abilities may also compensate, in the minds of many readers, for the somewhat mystifying psychological quagmire of the main character Paul Morel that prevented him from finally being satisfied with the most amiable and seemingly obvious love interest at hand, Miriam, a wet dishrag of a person. To say nothing of Clara, his other sometime lover, the fiery, voluptuous, suffragette. Though it is perhaps not stated explicitly, there can be little doubt that his romantic pathology is the result of the unhealthy codependent relationship with his mother. His final complaint with Miriam was that she didn’t make him “spiritual”, that as he says, “you love me so much, you want to put me in your pocket. And I should die there smothered.” Why can’t Paul settle down, we wonder. Something of the plight of the artist I suppose is in Paul’s destiny: seeking transcendence, he is nearly paralyzed in almost every, and especially the traditional and romantic, relationship (except his mother, of course).

I’ll not linger on the dreary observation that Lawrence was vilified in his day for his pioneering depiction of sexual situations. Exploding contemporary mores, he was accused of being a “pornographer who had wasted his considerable talents.” I say dreary because we can find Lawrence’s use of sex somewhat tame by today’s standards. And then simultaneously one wants to say to the prudish critics of Lawrence’s day, Wait til you see the 21st century.

This review is tending strongly to the negative aspects of the book, it is true. It would be well to mention a few positive qualities appreciated by all. Lawrence truly does have a great skill with with the written word. His characters and setting are realistic and well-described, and interesting to read about. I appreciated how the presence of physical abuse by Walter against his wife Gertrude, while alarming, doesn’t overwhelm the story. And though its reputation for sexual trailblazing may have long since become quaint, I for one appreciate a writer who can write more openly of one of the most natural human functions in the world. And it was still done, by today’s standards, with considerable discretion, largely “off camera” as it were.

I’ll end by relating the observation of our reading group that there was not a single purely admirable major character in the book, including Paul Morel, a quality not unheard of, but still unusual, and perhaps in keeping with Lawrence’s realism. Just 30 years earlier, pessimistic writers like Thomas Hardy gave us stories such as Tess of the D’Ubervilles, an idealized, irreproachable and tragic character beset by the cruelties of fate. Mark Twain was delighting readers while making poignant cultural commentary with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But Joseph Conrad was also starting to spin his dark tales of human failure and brokenness. The modern period was looming and by 1913 Lawrence could summon a story mired in coal dust, awkwardly haptic and hairy, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, a literary interruptus, with a cast of characters alternately violent, insolent, selfish, peevish, arrogant, overly meek, oblivious, or possessed of any number of other flaws, while speaking authentically to the growing generation of lost modern souls. Lawrence’s fiction spoke in the vernacular of the 20th century, and foreshadowed the decades to come. It unquestionably influenced the trajectory of literature. And that is a singular accolade on top of a great literary voice.

Fact or fiction – Capote in cold blood

The greatest question of the evening was that of credulity regarding Truman Capote’s assignation of “non-fiction novel” to his renowned book, and our October selection, In Cold Blood.

This detail alone sustained considerable debate. From the opening essay and for the first 45 minutes, stakes were claimed, evidence was marshaled, witnesses took the stand, harrumphs were harrumphed. Contemporary critics were cited who disputed the accuracy of Capote’s account.

Capote’s own testimony that he took no notes and used no audio recordings in the reporting of long, private, detailed conversations strains belief. The book contains no footnotes or citations. He claims to remember 95% of what was related to him by the perpetrators of the central crime in the book, and a host of other interviewees. Was Capote a savant, did he have photographic memory? or was he full of shit? We will never know.

For the viewer who has not read the book, Capote tells the story of the murder of the Clutter family in the farming community of Holcomb in western Kansas by Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the search for the killers, their capture, trial and execution. It is considered the book that birthed the true crime novel genre.

Another matter of debate was whether Truman was more sympathetic toward Perry than Hickock. It was agreed that he humanized both characters. If film adaptations of the writing of the book have any basis, perhaps in research, then it he may indeed have favored Perry somewhat, and may have supplied some money and influence against the men receiving the death penalty, which was ultimately carried out.

Although the family background of both of the killers was given in detail, Perry’s psychology seemed to get more focus. One of our group pointed out Perry’s dissociative behavior the night of the killings: at one point he walked out of the house, thought to run, but soon went back in just to see how it would play out.

One interesting question came up: would either of the men have committed the crimes if they had been alone, and all agreed they would not have. There was a classic macho persona between them, with Hickock the brains and Smith the brawn, or at least the one with a bent toward violence and murder.

As the evening closed, we fell to the question of the ethics of the death penalty, the specifics of Kansas law in 1959, and the justice or injustice of the hanging execution the men eventually received. Opinions were divided.

The book for December is Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

William Golding’s Beelzebub

In September our book was William Golding’s iconic Lord of the Flies. Iconic, but not classic, so said some at our table. Which is not to say it’s themes are not timeless. The book’s merit of the word “classic” however seems to be up for debate.

But I’m getting off too early into the weeds. LOTF was early acknowledged to be a book full of symbolism, stopping short of becoming all-out allegory.

Symbols that required analysis include the conch, the beast, the realm of the adults, the beachfront area, the sea, the pig’s head, the dead parachuter, Piggy’s glasses, Piggy himself, Ralph, Simon, and Jack.

A basic high school familiarity with the book says that it is a portrait or microcosm of humanity where the rule of law is removed. Golding suggests that we are all children who have the propensity to return to savagery if we were in a similar situation as the children.

What generated debate was the question of how the presence of various influences might mitigate our decline into abject barbarism. Would not adults be more industrious and organized if stranded on a desert island? How did mankind arise from a primitive state to the current level of civilization anyway (read Guns, Germs, and Steel for a substantial answer to that question)? Isn’t there more to human flourishing than the rule of law, namely, the common grace of God?

Another observation was the inescapable religious symbolism throughout, probably attributable to Golding’s education as a classicist and his British cultural identity most likely steeped in Church of England, Judeo-Christian mores and metanarratives. The island, clearly, is the realm of mankind. The realm of the adults, in this writer’s estimation, is something like the realm of the divine — the source of order, law, judgement, and indirectly all of the civilizing influences those institutions bring.

The boys’ descent into savagery, resulting in the murder of two already and moments away from the murder of Ralph, stopped in its tracks by the appearance of the adult officer (uniformed, civilized, and bearing a sidearm). The return of “the adults” to “rescue” them was the prime longing at the start, but steadily faded from view until even noble Ralph seemed to be forgetting their purpose in keeping the fire lit.

The appearance of the officer, given an Anglican worldview, looks strikingly like Judgement Day, when the bloody savagery of humans is suddenly dispelled by the vision, and remorse for his crimes are now the obvious matter to be dealt with.

The symbol of the pig’s head, which for Simon becomes the Beast incarnate, is another pagan/Satanic, idolatrous image, suited to primitive totemistic religion.

Much more could be said about LOTF and about Golding himself, and about the place of the book in the western canon. All agreed that the book was important and valuable, and we were glad to have a chance as adults to reread it.

Here’s a nice map of the island I found.

O’Brien eludes in Cacchiato

Tim O’Brien’s 1978 novel Going After Cacchiato was our August book.

Never before in our group has a single novel spawned so many theories about its interpretation as Cacchiato. We unanimously attribute this to O’Brien’s skill as a writer, and he accordingly has the full admiration and gratitude of the Austin Athenaeum.

The present narrative of the book takes place as Paul Berlin is sitting in a watchtower reflecting on the past. One theory is that the central narrative of the book is that Paul Berlin cannot come to grips with his participation in the murder of Lt. Sidney Martin. The Cacchiato story was real. But the subject of debate was Who was Cacchiato and what happened to him?

Next, the theory was proposed that Berlin killed Cacchiato accidentally, and only ch.1 is true account. Another theory is that there never was a Cacchiato. Many agreed with this theory: the Cacchiato story was a fantasy, a point supported by the fact that the book is full of uncertainty about what’s real and what isn’t.

Another theory was proposed that the book is a story about the moral dilemmas of war. Berlin is wrestling with this and trying to find a place between the oaths he has taken and following orders that conflict with his oaths. Will Berlin live up to his moral responsibility? And what is his responsibility in the conflict between murder vs. saving others?

The scene at the round table is key: the vietnamese girl on one side and Berlin on the other. (Some considered this scene “telling” not “showing” and that is should have been left out, well, one in particular.)

O’Brien was a sergeant in the 198th Infantry Brigade in the US Army, serving in Vietnam and winning the Purple Heart. Consequently, many of his writings have dealt with the Vietnam War, a subject about which he speaks from experience. All of O’Brien’s Vietnam works that our group have read have the mark of authenticity.

In comparison to other war books we have read lately (Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead and All Quiet on the Western Front), there was a majority who felt this book was the most immediate and the most fascinating to read.

One regret we has is that O’Brien lives in San Marcos and, we learned too late, is known to be seen in Austin. How we wish he could have been at our meeting!


Orhan Pamuk may be a lesser known author in the United States, but this Turkish Nobel Prize winning novelist deserves a wider audience. We found great enjoyment and learned much about the nation and people of Turkey by reading Pamuk’s most well-known novel, Snow.

In his opening essay, Benjamin pointed out two important themes. The first was, obviously, snow. Throughout the book the quiet, beautiful snow seems to speak to the main character, Ka, about God, and is itself a character. It is snow that has closed all roads in and out of the little town of Kars creating an isolated area where a localized military coup can take place without the knowledge or interference of state forces in Ankara. The snow binds everyone to Kars, but also bind everyone together

Another theme is happiness. Ka is on a quest to find it in a relationship with Ipek through which he hopes to bring her with her to his exiled home in Frankfurt. This, he believes, would bring the greatest happiness imaginable to his life. Sadly it was never to be, although they came close.

We discussed the duality of the Turkish people as portrayed in the book, that they seem to want to be a western, secular state and to be religious at the same time. Even those who represent one or the other interest betray the influence of the other side. The debate over whether women can/should/must wear head coverings is sometimes cast as a matter of western freedom of expression while simultaneously being a symbol of (among other things) female submission in Islam. In Turkey though the two sides (western and Islamic) hate each other, they cannot live without each other. They are indivisible as part of the Turkish identity.

Another interesting observation about the book was the number of stories within the story. Some examples include Necip’s science fiction (p. 114 in the Everyman edition), Blue’s story of father and son on the battlefield (p. 87), the play titled My Fatherland or My Headscarf (p. 157), the story of the Poison Investigation (p. 220). There was also the story of Teslime’s suicide, and Ka’s dream of walking between two high walls.

As mentioned, beyond the great enjoyment of the story, we all felt we had moved a little bit closer to understanding the middle eastern mind, at least the Turkish part of it. And we are glad to extend our reach outside of the canon of western, English books to include this translation of a great Turkish novel.