Let’s get it out of the way: Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman is no To Kill a Mockingbird. For 55 years, the reclusive Lee has been lauded for her Pulitzer Prize-winning story of racial inequality and justice in Alabama as told by young Scout, and yet Lee remained a curiosity by shunning publicity and never publishing another word. Earlier this year, the book world was set atwitter with the news that Lee had agreed to the publication of Watchman, an early and forgotten manuscript said to be fodder for what became her beloved classic.
Go Set a Watchman opens with Scout, now Jean Louise Finch and a NYC resident, riding the sleeper car train back to Maycomb for her annual visit. She thinks about marrying childhood friend Hank who now practices law with Atticus, and she prepares for the inevitable head-butting with her Aunt Alexandra, who remains ever the example of proper Southern womanhood. Instead, grown-up Scout finds that she can’t go home again as she discovers the men she reveres have feet of clay, ascribing to a repugnant philosophy of white supremacy, paternalism and disenfranchisement.
Lee’s particular gift of filtering a puzzling world through the mindset of a child shines in Watchman, just as in To Kill a Mockingbird. Jean Louise’s memory of when she, Jem and Dill played a backyard game of church revival, which ends with a naked Scout’s “baptism” in an algae-slicked fish pond, is a lovely and gently sardonic poke at small town religious tradition. Both stories deal with coming of age in a community governed by a rigid unforgiving class structure which neither blacks nor whites escape. Watchman, however, seems more firmly rooted in a past when ugly language and divisive actions were acceptable in polite society, and here Jean Louise is left dealing with the unsatisfying ambiguities of adulthood.
Isaiah 21, verse 6: For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth. The watchman is both the announcer of the events he witnesses and a moral compass. Go Set a Watchman serves to remind the reader of the imperative to follow one’s conscience.
Looking for the perfect book to take poolside, distract you on the plane or transport you from your backyard lawn chair? Lose yourself in The Wrong Man by Kate White or Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms, each story filled with suspense and misdirection.
In The Wrong Man, Kit Finn just ended a staid relationship and feels like she is treading water. On a buying trip to Florida, the interior designer resolves to shake up her life and chance stepping outside her comfort zone. Chance presents itself as Matt Healey, a hot and handsome fellow New Yorker who arranges to keep this new romance going once they return to the city. But when Kit shows up at Matt’s door for dinner, she finds instead The Wrong Man; it’s the real Matt Healey and he is not the man Kit met in Florida. As Kit tries to figure out this case of misrepresented identity, she’s drawn in to a web of deceit and corporate corruption which just might turn deadly. Author Kate White, who served as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 14 years, writes a snappy, sexy mystery which keeps the reader guessing till the last pages.
Author Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her debut novel, Dark Rooms, tells a chilling and somewhat seamy tale. Posh Chandler Academy is an archetypal New England prep school brimming with wealth and privilege. Grace is a graduate of Chandler, her parents on its teaching staff, but she’s dropped out of college and is living at home while she focuses on solving the shooting death of her charismatic younger sister Nica. Nica’s death has unraveled the family — former good girl Grace is popping pills while her father drowns his sorrows in alcohol. The girls’ mother, a photographer who both favored and obsessively photographed Nica, decamped to an artist commune, effectively abandoning what’s left of her family. Grace’s refusal to accept the official story — that an alienated student smarting from unrequited love shot Nica and hung himself — helps her discover her own strength and independence as she unearths the grim secrets sheltered in Chandler’s ivy-covered towers.
For other twisty thrillers, try Disclaimer by Renee Knight or Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight.
Eye on the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press by James McGrath Morris is the biography of a groundbreaking reporter who covered seminal events of the civil rights movement. Morris, a former journalist himself, writes about Payne’s work in journalism which forged a new path, as a woman and as an African American.
Ethel Payne, born in 1911, was raised in Chicago’s West Englewood area—one of the few enclaves in Chicago which permitted African-Americans to live outside the racially segregated “Black Belt” neighborhoods. By 30 years old, this granddaughter of slaves was reporting for one of the nation’s preeminent African American newspapers, the Chicago Defender. Her trajectory continued as Ms. Payne reported on civil rights issues domestically and abroad. She investigated the state of black soldiers stationed in Japan and interviewed Vietnam’s General Westmoreland about the treatment of black troops fighting in the war. As a member of the White House Press Corps, she won accolades from Clarence Mitchell after she questioned the Eisenhower administration about discriminatory practices. Payne was present for the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, rubbed elbows with presidents (even entertaining Richard and Patricia Nixon in her home), met with foreign leaders and traveled with Winston Churchill in Africa. Her efforts to end apartheid allowed her a private audience with Nelson and Winnie Mandela. Eye on the Struggle chronicles Payne’s illustrious career, made all the more remarkable by Payne’s unswerving approach of recording events both important to and from the perspective of black Americans.
Detroit: in its heyday, it was the bustling host to Motown and the "Big Three" auto manufacturers. The city also served as a mecca for African Americans escaping Jim Crow and taking advantage of the jobs available in its thriving economy. Set in Detroit, Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, tells the story of husband and wife Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children while exploring their ties to their family home in Detroit.
Oldest sibling Cha-Cha is the Turner family patriarch by default. At 62 years old, he is both accustomed to and tired of assuming the role of leader to his younger siblings. With his father’s passing and his mother’s deteriorating health, the family’s house on Yarrow Street, once an emblem of success in Black America, is vacant and crumbling and saddled with a mortgage 10 times the home’s current value. While the Turner children jockey with their differing views of what to do with the debt-ridden property, Cha-Cha is engaging in a mid-life retrospective, evaluating his relationships with his parents, his wife and his siblings. The narrative revealing how Francis and Viola each made their way to Michigan from rural Arkansas is especially poignant. Flournoy’s writing is gentle, pointed and witty as she explores if blood ties, shared memories or something else entirely creates family bonds. Fans of Anne Tyler or J. California Cooper will lose themselves in the thoughtful story of The Turner House.
For nearly 20 years, the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction has been honoring the contributions of women writers around the world for their extraordinary contributions to contemporary fiction. This year’s winner, announced on Wednesday, June 3, is How to be Both by Ali Smith.
Prize judges describe the winning book as a story of “grief, love, sexuality and shape-shifting identity.” Two separate narratives, entitled Camera and Eye, take place 500 years apart with a glorious painted fresco as the link to both. Camera is the story of George(ia), a contemporary English teen who is thinking over exchanges with her mother who has since died. Eye tells of Francescho, an Italian girl, also motherless, masquerading as a boy in order to gain entrance as a painter in the 15 century art world. Smith says her inspiration to write How to be Both came from viewing Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa’s beautiful works.
The shortlist of nominees included beloved local author Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which follows a Baltimore family as its younger generations cope with their aging parents. A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie combines Ottoman Empire history, archaeology, a treasure hunt and romance against the backdrop of World War I. Rachel Cusk was nominated for Outline, a book of revelatory conversations between a woman and an assortment of people who cross her path while she is teaching a writing class in Greece. Rounding out the shortlist are two titles which appeared earlier on Between the Covers: The Bees by Laline Paull, which immerses the reader in an imaginative, totalitarian honeybee hive society; and Sarah Water’s The Paying Guest, which explores the effects of societal constraints on women, resulting in a crime of forbidden passion in post-World War II England.