Celebrate the First Day of Fall with a Good Book

first day of fall

Fall is finally here! Arguably the best season of them all—the season of leaves and pumpkins, scary movies and hayrides, Halloween and Thanksgiving. For those of us who live in the South, it may not feel quite like fall yet, but don’t fret—there was never a problem that a well-chosen book couldn’t solve!

Here a few titles to get you in the autumn mood. Turn down the air, put on your favorite sweater, grab your pumpkin spice latte, and curl up with a good book!

A Fall Reading List

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien The Hobbit FallStart out with this classic from J.R.R. Tolkien—the one book that started it all, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings. Right off the bat, Bilbo Baggins in his hobbit hole, scurrying and flustered from the unexpected company of dwarves who landed on his doorstep, will put you in the fall mood. Tolkien’s beautiful descriptions of nature will not disappoint, and you can follow it up with a movie marathon! Peter Jackson directed both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies, for your viewing pleasure.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

For a little old-fashioned horror with a touch of mystery, check out Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. This classic ghost story was one of the first to develop the “strangers in a haunted house” motif, and it will give you some great ideas for Halloween costumes and decorations. For some extra scares, check out one of the two movie adaptations, both titled The Haunting—one made in 1963 and the other 1999. If you like Jackson’s style, also check out the short story “The Lottery,” one of the inspirations for The Hunger Games.

The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete Tales of Edgar Allan PoeIf you like being scared, but don’t like being grossed out, Poe is for you. His writing style is both beautiful and readable—he will impress and terrify you. Plus a short story is a great way to pass the time between apple picking and hayrides. Check out “The Raven,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher.”

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

Really any Harry Potter book will do, if you’re a fan of the series and can jump in anywhere. If you’ve never read Harry Potter, or if it’s been a while, start from the beginning. J.K. Rowling is a master storyteller—you won’t want to put it down. Between shopping for school supplies, the beautiful candle-lit castle, wizard robes and pumpkin beer, if Harry Potter doesn’t put you in the fall mood, nothing will.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Based on a true story, Berendt’s novel is a classic Southern Gothic tale with a few modern twists—a great way to get ready for the Halloween season. It’s got everything you need—voodoo, cemeteries, mystery and chills. For a bonus, check out the great film version of the same name, starring John Cusack and Kevin Spacey and directed by Clint Eastwood.

Happy Fall from Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe!

Do you have a special book that gets you in the mood for Fall or Halloween? Let us know!

 

Seven Novels Set in Small Towns

Vintage Old Town Photo

Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square.

Great Depression
“Maycomb was a tired old town.”

In literature, small towns can serve as microscopes—the good and the bad in life are magnified and closely examined. Human relationships are tested, explored and expanded. The actions of characters affect not only themselves and their close friends and family, but also ripple throughout the community. A small town can also serve as microcosm, a contained whole representative of something larger—a state, our nation, or humanity in general.

In the case of Maycomb, Alabama—the fictional setting for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird—the town served to present and examine the racism that permeated small southern towns—a racism that infected the justice system, as well as the day to day lives of the those in the community. It also showed the devastating effects of the Great Depression, as well as the resilience that carried our nation through that dark period.

Here at Ol’ Curiosities & Book Shoppe, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of our favorites. In honor of Maycomb, here are seven more novels set in small towns.

7 Books Set in Small Towns

Cold Sassy Tree

Historical novel Cold Sassy Tree, by Olive Ann Burns, is set in the fictional town of Cold Sassy, Georgia. The name of the town comes from the sassafras trees that grow there. Nature is often a motif in small town stories, as small towns are closer and therefore more connected to nature. Cold Sassy Tree is about a scandalous marriage and the town’s reaction to such, as well as a young boy growing up.

The Notebook

The Notebook Nicholas Sparks Small TownMost of Nicholas Sparks’ books could be on this list, so The Notebook is representative of a larger group of similar works. Sparks sets his (many) novels in small towns in North Carolina. The Notebook tells the love story of Noah and Allie, who meet and fall in love in New Bern, NC. In an interview with CliffsNotes, Sparks explains why he likes to set his novels in small towns:

I think that setting a novel in a small town taps into a sense of nostalgia among readers. People tend to believe life is different in small towns, and frankly, it is different. The pace of life is slower, there’s less traffic, and people tend to know their neighbors; each town has its distinct idiosyncrasies and charms.

Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery, is set in a fictional town on Prince Edward Island—Canada’s smallest province. Modeled after the town of Cavendish, where the author grew up, the novel’s setting is a charming small town with sprawling farmland, mysterious woods and a beautiful coastline. Those interested in the Anne of Green Gables experience can visit Avonlea Village, a small park attraction in Cavendish modeled after the fictional town.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

In Fannie Flagg’s novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, elderly Ninny Threadgoode narrates the adventures of her youth spent in Whistle Stop, Alabama. Ninny and her friend Ruth ran the Whistle Stop Cafe in the 30s. As in Mockingbird, in Fried Green Tomatoes we see the effects of the Great Depression on small southern towns. The novel and the town are filled with quirky characters, humor, mystery, terror and triumph.

Salem’s Lot

Salem's Lot Stephen King Small TownsStephen King’s second novel, Salem’s Lot, is set in Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine. Writer Ben Mears returns to his small town home after 25 years only to discover the town is filled with a great evil. In his memoir On Writing, King described the novel as “Vampires in Our Town.” A theme of the story is that horrors can be hidden anywhere, even in small towns where everyone thinks they know their neighbors.

The Grass Harp

Like his first novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp is about a young boy leaving home to live with relatives. He deals with the strangeness of his new surroundings and an intense, haunting feeling of loneliness. Like Harper Lee, Capote spent much of his childhood in Monroeville, Alabama, and used the town as a model for the small southern town in this and other novels.

The Casual Vacancy

J.K. Rowling’s first novel after her hugely popular Harry Potter series, and her first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy is about a vacant council seat in the small town of Pagford in the West Country region of England. The vacancy causes much scandal in the small community. For those expecting Harry Potter, you’ll be sorely disappointed, as this book couldn’t be more different. But The Casual Vacancy stands on its own—in it, Rowling examines greed, politics, class, drug use and small town life.

Did we miss your favorite small town book? Did you grow up in a small town? Let us know!

Is Scout Finch an Unreliable Narrator?

scout atticus parenting
The Catcher in the Rye unreliable
Holden Caulfield is an Unreliable Narrator

In fiction, you can classify first-person narrators into two types: reliable and unreliable. The distinction is self-evident: a reliable narrator tells the truth, and an unreliable one does not. According to literary critic and esteemed professor Wayne Booth, an unreliable narrator is one whose “credibility has been seriously compromised.”

This does not mean that unreliable narrators are always sneaky or immoral. An unreliable narrator can unintentionally mislead readers, whether from gaps in knowledge, memory issues, an altered mental state or diminished mental capacities. Examples of unreliable narrators include Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield and Forrest Gump.

Is Scout Reliable?

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the reliability of narrator Scout Finch is a subject of debate among readers. Though she doesn’t deliberately tell untruths, her truthfulness is in question for two seemingly contrary reasons: her young age as a character and her mature age as a narrator.

Scout Finch ham
Mary Badham as Scout Finch

First, it is important to remember that Scout is actually narrating To Kill a Mockingbird as an adult—she is reminiscing about her experiences as a 6-year-old in Maycomb. As an older woman looking back on her childhood, her memory may get in her way. She could be misremembering events, forgetting certain details or looking at the past through the lens of nostalgia.

Alternatively, Scout’s young age as a character in the story (as opposed to her advanced age as its narrator) may affect her reliability. She may not entirely understand events or characters’ motivations, and therefore may miss the whole truth of what’s happening. Her age changes her perception of the world—for example Boo Radley and his house seem like the scariest thing in Maycomb, until she learns enough to realize that the racism of the town is the true horror of the world, and Boo Radley is merely different, not scary.

Does Scout’s reliability matter?

The two aspects of Scout’s unreliability may in fact cancel each other out—her maturity while looking back helps her better understand the events and experiences of her childhood. And the details she conveys suggest her memory is intact and she is able to step into her younger self’s shoes well enough.

Atticus and Scout
Atticus and Scout

But if she is unreliable, this isn’t a bad thing. An unreliable narrator can make a story interesting. It makes the narrator flawed and therefore more human and relatable. It also asks for more engagement from the reader, as the reader must remain aware of the narrator’s unreliability and therefore must question the information she is given.

Finally, an unreliable narrator gives us a new worldview—it puts us into the world of someone different from ourselves, and gives us their skewed perspective. As Atticus taught us, there is a great benefit from seeing the world from someone else’s point of view, even if that point of view isn’t entirely honest.

An Unreliable Book Recommendation

If you haven’t read a little gem by Agatha Christie called The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, I highly suggest you check it out. And keep a close eye on the narrator!

Who is your favorite unreliable narrator? Do you enjoy unreliable narrators or do you feel annoyed or betrayed when a narrator misleads you? Let us know!

 

Is To Kill a Mockingbird a Young Adult Novel?

young adult literature reading tracking

Young Adult vs. Adult – What’s the Difference?

To Kill a Mockingbird paperback
To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird was written and published as a novel for adults, yet today it is widely read by school children and young adults. After its release, Flannery O’Connor remarked that “It’s interesting that all the folks that are buying it don’t know they are buying a children’s book.” Harper Lee never forgave the comment.

In her biography Mockingbird Next Door, Marja Mills states: “[Harper Lee] said she felt lucky Mockingbird was published when it was. Much later, and it might have been classified as young adult fiction and never reached the audience, and all the adults, it did.” Lee was correct in her concern—had her book been classified as young adult, its literary merit might have been overlooked.

TIME ranks To Kill a Mockingbird on its 100 Best Young Adult books of all time. The Modern Library ranks it on its 100 Best Novels of all time (as polled by readers), as does The Guardian. So is To Kill a Mockingbird a book for young adults or for adults? Who decides? Does it matter?

Defining Young Adult Literature

According to a position paper written by Michael Cart for the The Young Adult Library Services Association (YASLA), the term “young adult literature is inherently amorphous,” as both “young adult” and “literature” are terms that change meaning as culture and society change around them.

Cart writes that the term became a commonly used one in the late 1960s, and then “it referred to realistic fiction that was set in the real (as opposed to imagined), contemporary world and addressed problems, issues, and life circumstances of interest to young readers aged approximately 12-18.”

Harper Lee’s book was published in 1960, and if this term had found common usage earlier, it might have applied to To Kill a Mockingbird.

Cart goes on to explain that the term “young adult literature” has recently changed. The size of the audience and the popularity of the genre have increased exponentially. The age range has changed as well, Cart writes, as “the conventional definition of “young adult” has expanded to include those as young as ten and, since the late 1990s, as old as twenty-five.”

You Can’t Cage the Mockingbird

scout atticus parenting
Mary Badham as Scout and Gregory Peck as Atticus

The issue that makes To Kill a Mockingbird difficult to classify is twofold. First, it was not classified as young adult literature when it was released, and therefore read by a huge adult audience, one that continues to cherish the book today.

It is widely read in schools, yet adults out of school often revisit the novel or read it for the first time. The connection that adults feel with the novel constitutes the second problem with classifying as it young adult. Mockingbird’s unique two-part structure means that, though half the book is about a child growing up and learning tough lessons, the other part is about the very real societal problem of racism and its effect on the justice system.

Harper Lee had a very important message to convey, and because her novel was not classified for children when it was released, her message met the wide audience that needed to hear it. Luckily, her novel continues to be classified as both adult and young adult fiction, bridging the gap with its universal message of empathy and hope.

Would classify To Kill a Mockingbird as a young adult novel? Why or why not?

 

Required Reading Part II: More Classics You Should Revisit

required reading

A few months ago, I posted a list of Required Reading that I recommend you revisit—these are books that you probably read in middle school, high school or college, that are worth a second read in adulthood. When we’re required to read a book instead of choosing it for ourselves, the experience isn’t always enjoyable. You may have found these books boring, perplexing, depressing or just plain hard to read. Perhaps you didn’t even read them at all.

If you take a chance on a required book that you didn’t like in school, you may be pleasantly surprised. Your life experiences can change your tastes, and your reading skills are likely more advanced—you probably can overcome the obstacles you faced in school when approaching required reading. These books can enrich your life or give you something interesting to talk about with friends.

Required Reading You Should Revisit: 5 More Novels

required reading the scarlet letter nathaniel hawthorneThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterwork, The Scarlet Letter, was published in 1850. It follows Hester Prynne, a woman who faces public scorn after an adulterous relationship. She is made to wear a scarlet “A” and must raise her child on her own. In school, you might have found the historical fiction about religion and adultery dull or strange. Why it’s worth a second reading: Hawthorne expertly crafts descriptive symbols and real, tortured characters. The Puritan past of America provides an interesting, unsettling environment for an exploration of sin and salvation.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises was published in 1926 and explores the disillusioned postwar culture of expatriates in Europe. A group of friends travels from Paris to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and bullfights, and they generally make bad decisions along the way. You might have found Hemingway’s long descriptions of scenery dull and his less-is-more dialogue and exposition confusing. Why it’s worth a second reading: As an adult, you’ll better relate to the struggles of the characters—their search for meaning, their discovery of the gray area, and their loss of love and desperation.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

required reading lois lowry the giverIt’s not likely that you hated The Giver when you read it in middle school—it’s a fun, quick, enjoyable read—but you may have skipped it altogether or forgotten much that the novel has to offer. Lois Lowry’s book, published in 1993, is about a young boy, Jonas, growing up in a tidy, controlled society. He’s assigned the job of Receiver of Memories, and through his lessons he begins to learn more about his world and what he’s missing. Why it’s worth a revisit: By now you’ve probably read a lot of young adult dystopian novels, but The Giver sits a head above the rest. The comparison of utopia and dystopia is interesting, and the novel worries more about ideas—moral, cultural, political—than romance or melodrama.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

If you read The Bell Jar in high school you probably either loved it and added it to your collection of angsty books and movies, or you were annoyed that your teacher assigned such a depressing book. Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel, published in 1963, follows Esther Greenwood as she interns with a fashion magazine in New York City. The novel explores her journey as she slides into and deals with depression. Why you should give it a second chance: Plath is a master of language, and her prose is divine. The topic of mental health is a complex one, and Plath uses her considerable skills and experience to elucidate clinical depression.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s novel about societal conventions, love, marriage and morality might have been a little much for you in high school. Published in 1813, Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters as they try to find stability, purpose and happiness in a culture that doesn’t let women do much of anything. Perhaps you even skipped the book and went straight to the 6-part miniseries. Why it’s worth a revisit: As an adult you’ll appreciate the nuance of Austen’s writing, as well as her wit. You’ve probably dealt with many characters similar to those Austen writes, and you might seek out the numerous adaptations, sequels, and related or similar works that Austen inspired.

Did we miss your favorite required reading? Have you had an experience where you revisited a book you read in school and discovered that your opinion of it had changed? Let us know!

 

Hero, Antihero, Narrator or Protagonist – What’s in a name?

shadows hero protagonist

In Act II, Scene II of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo is brooding about how his name is preventing him from being with his sweetheart. (As Shakespearean brooders good, he’s right up there with Hamlet.) Romeo laments: “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” He’s wondering, couldn’t we change the name of anything without changing its nature?

He may be right, but naming things (and sticking with those names) can also be very useful. By calling a group of flowers “roses,” and agreeing that we call them roses because they display certain characteristics, we can communicate with each other without confusion. So when it comes to the main characters in literature, what is the distinction between hero/heroine, antihero, narrator and protagonist? And does this distinction matter? Let’s find out.

Hero, Antihero, Narrator and Protagonist – What’s the difference?

Narrator

protagonist in literature
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

A narrator provides the voice of a story. A narrator isn’t necessarily a protagonist or a hero—look at Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby. The three most common types of narration are first person, third-person omniscient and third-person limited. A first person narrator tells the story from his or her point of view—for example Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. The third-person limited perspective is told from outside the perspective of a character (using the pronouns he, she, they, etc.) but still remains limited to knowing the thoughts and feelings of a single character. For example Robert Jordan in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Third-person omniscient allows for “head hopping”—the author can reveal the thoughts of any character, for example Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.

Protagonist

A protagonist is the main character of any story—whether it be a movie, novel, television show or play. Protagonists are written in such a way as to allow audiences to identify with them, and to feel empathy towards them. Because of this, protagonists are flawed and often lack the quirks and personality traits that supporting characters have. Protagonists are meant to be mirrors, and audiences are supposed to see themselves in that role. For example, look at J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The protagonist, Harry Potter, is an everyman. He is minimally flushed out so that we can easily see ourselves in him. The supporting characters—Ron, Hermione, Neville and Draco Malfoy, for example—have more extreme characteristics.

Hero/Heroine

Scout Finch defying gender norms
Mary Badham as Scout Finch

A hero is a character who exhibits heroic characteristics—bravery and self-sacrifice, for example. The main difference between a hero and a protagonist is that the protagonist is relatable—flawed in ways, and he or she grows and changes throughout the book—and the hero is merely heroic. For example in To Kill a Mockingbird, Scout is the protagonist—she makes mistakes and learns important lessons through the novel. Though she is tough, she’s not the hero of the novel, Atticus is. He shows courage in the face of adversity and puts his own needs behind the needs of others. Another example is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The hero is Charlie—he’s good and brave throughout the novel. The protagonist is actually Willy Wonka, who struggles with his work and identity throughout the novel and eventually comes to peace with himself.

The hero and the protagonist can also be the same person. In Harper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, Jean-Louise serves as both. She’s clearly the protagonist—she carries the story, and she’s relatable and flawed. One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is that Atticus is no longer the hero, Jean-Louise is. She has the courage to stand up to her own hero and mentor, her father, because she knows it’s the right thing to do.

Antihero

Here’s where things get interesting. An antihero is a character who is central to a story but who displays unheroic qualities. This character is different from an antagonist, who is the central villain of a story and opposes the protagonist. Just as a hero isn’t always a protagonist, if you have an antihero in a story, he/she is likely—but not always—the protagonist. Antiheroes are always fun and interesting and make for great stories. Examples include Humbert Humbert from Lolita and Alex in A Clockwork Orange. Antiheroes have also been popular on television lately—Walter White from Breaking Bad and Don Draper from Mad Men, for example.

Here’s a stumper—is Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby a hero or an antihero? What do you think? Let us know your thoughts!