Maximum Shelf: The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on June 25, 2014.


mockingbird

Published in 1960, To Kill a Mockingbird spent nearly two years on bestseller lists and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961. Since then, its impact has been lasting and widespread: Atticus Finch, Scout, Jem and Dill, and Boo Radley are well-known names today, and the novel is still taught (and targeted for removal) in many high schools nationwide. With its themes of racial injustice, gender roles, mental illness, addiction, and class differences–and its remarkable ability to bring humor and compassion to such somber subjects–To Kill a Mockingbird has become an American classic. Its equally famously author, Harper Lee (full name Nelle Harper Lee, Nelle to her friends), is notoriously private. She stopped giving interviews just a few years after the publication of her only novel. Lee’s relationship with Truman Capote has also attracted longstanding interest. The two grew up next-door neighbors, exercising their imaginations and storytelling talents on one another. Lee assisted Capote’s Kansas research project that became In Cold Blood; Capote is rumored to have contributed to Lee’s Mockingbird, but this rumor has always been hotly denied by Lee (and Capote himself never made such a claim).

Over 40 years after the publication of her masterpiece, Nelle Harper Lee continued to quietly reside in the small Alabama town that inspired it, splitting her time between Monroeville, where her elder sister, Alice, still practices law, and New York City. In 2001, a Chicago Tribune reporter named Marja Mills was assigned to seek out an interview. Knowing Lee’s standing policy, Mills nevertheless traveled to Alabama, filed her request and toured the town for a day or two. She dutifully knocked on the door of Alice and Nelle Harper Lee’s home–and was floored when the elder sister opened the door and invited her in.

The development of trust and friendship between Mills and the Lee sisters took time, but even in those first minutes, the relationship was nearly unprecedented. Alice, the more methodical and steady sister, was first to open up. She set up interviews for Mills with the Lees’ friends and acquaintances, calling ahead to let them know it was okay to talk to the journalist, and what was acceptable to share. Nelle was known to those friends as being more mercurial; but eventually she, too, came around to the younger woman, who was cautious and respectful in approaching the famously cagey writer. Remarkably, Mills does not seem to have begun with any special interest in To Kill a Mockingbird or its author; but as a journalist, she was naturally attracted by the story. In the spirit of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Mills then immersed herself in a community that was only just willing to allow her access, and built trust haltingly, but eventually with great success.

Alice was in her 90s, Nelle in her 70s, when the three women become friends. But what could have been a problematic age gap was minimized by Mills’s own chronic health condition, which both helps her identify with the older women, and gives her the dubious gift of leave from full-time work. Eventually, she expressed a tentative interest in moving to Monroeville; the Lees encouraged the idea, and she moved in next door to them. What was by then a close, rich friendship continued to develop: on a daily basis, Mills shared morning coffee with Nelle, drove the countryside, fed the local geese and ducks with the sisters (who kept close tabs on their numbers, and worried over missing goslings), and socialized with the Lees’ close-knit and protective group of friends. This included accompanying Nelle to the Southern society events that made the reticent author nervous.

Alice is the keeper of Lee family lore, with a famously accurate memory. Mills’s research is equally concerned with each of the two sisters, and involves their friends as well. The project that became The Mockingbird Next Door was conceived fairly early in the relationship, and in Mills’s telling, Alice and Nelle are willing supporters; they went over her notes together, marking what was to be included and what was to be redacted. (Readers are left wondering how much fell into the latter category.)

The Mockingbird Next Door offers no big reveals, no shocking secrets about the life of Nelle Harper Lee, except perhaps that she is not a hermit or an incorrigible curmudgeon. Rather, she is a kind, down-to-earth woman, a voracious reader, loyal to her sister and friends–who simply prefers that her life not be such a public performance as was that of her famous former next-door neighbor. Told charmingly in the Lees’ southern drawl and with the affection and closeness that the story reveals, The Mockingbird Next Door is quietly admiring and satisfyingly intimate, and will captivate not only fans of Lee’s great American novel, but fans of real people living modest lives in small-town Alabama, or anywhere.


Rating: 7 cups of coffee.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Mills!

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

silentThis was a very interesting read, and not exactly what I’d expected; but it is in line with my own previous Janet Malcolm read, Iphigenia in Forest Hills. As I said on Tuesday, this is not a biography as I thought; it is rather an examination, if not an excoriation, of biographies generally. The life of Sylvia Plath is chosen as a vehicle for Malcolm’s argument, her journey and study toward developing that argument, and she does make an appropriate vehicle. She is a sensation, what with her suicide and all; she has living family members (notably her husband, sister–in-law, and her mother; she also has children, but they are only referred to by others, and don’t show their own faces) to be hurt by biographical portrayals which naturally handle their lives as well, often less than gently; and the biographies that have been written of her have tended to viscerally choose sides. Some are in the pro-Plath camp: she was a fine talent, tormented and abused by her evil husband Ted Hughes and her mother; others are pro-Hughes: he was a saint, she was a terror.

[Here is where I want to point out that this book was published in 1994, so the living relatives Malcolm writes about and that I’m referring to were living then. Plath’s mother Aurelia died in 1994; but in the present tense of this book, she is alive. Hughes died in 1998. I can’t confirm Olwyn Hughes’s status; I am therefore tempted to presume she is going strong.]

Very briefly: you know Sylvia Plath? Troubled poet, author of The Bell Jar? She was married to poet Ted Hughes, had two children, and was separated from him when she made her second suicide attempt, which was successful, by putting her head in an oven and gassing herself. Ted and his sister Olwyn have controlled her literary estate, with Olwyn playing the active role and ferociously defending his reputation.

Janet Malcolm traveled in 1991 to England to meet with Olwyn Hughes, and several Plath biographers, to talk about the Plath legacy and the ways in which it has been mismanaged. While the various parties differ on how, why, and when, I think they will all agree that it has been mismanaged. The biographical processes and products have been fraught with bitterness and poisonous resentments and failures of compassion, of put-yourself-in-someone-else’s-shoes. I am undecided as to what side I’m on, and Malcolm has something to say about this failure to choose sides.

The writer, like the murderer, needs a motive. Rose’s book is fuelled [sic] by a bracing hostility toward Ted and Olwyn Hughes. It derives its verve and forward thrust from the cool certainty with which… she presents her case against the Hugheses… If it had been impossible for Rose to take a side, her book would not have been written; it would not have been worth taking the trouble to write. Writing cannot be done in a state of desirelessness. The pose of fairmindedness, the charade of evenhandedness, the striking of an attitude of detachment can never be more than rhetorical ruses; if they were genuine, if the writer actually didn’t care one way or the other how things came out, he would not bestir himself to represent them.

(The male pronouns, present throughout, strike me as quite a shame. C’mon, Malcolm, you yourself are a writer who is not a “he” – can you not represent that possibility in your writing?)

Okay, so, point taken; but I didn’t get much of a feel for either Plath’s or Hughes’s point of view, honestly, from what I read in this book, and I’ve read none of the biographies. (Ironically, I was trusting to Malcolm to do that job for me; clearly that was a no-go, although what I received instead was worthwhile.)

Malcolm talks with the pro-Plath biographers and the Pro-Hughes biographers; they run a gamut from academic intellectuals through standers-by, friends and neighbors, and frankly (though Malcolm doesn’t use these words) some who strike me as tabloid-mongers. She reads letters and journals – the published ones, and the ones in archives. She reads manuscripts. She is most interested in the conflicts, the ethical questions, the difficulties – of biography generally (again see this week’s Teaser Tuesday for a perfect expression of this problem), and even more so, the difficulties of biography of a living person or one, like Plath, whose supporting cast is still living. (Or, again, was at the time of this book’s publication.)

It is all very interesting: Malcolm’s arguments, the people she meets – and her interview subjects get some excellent characterization. Considering The Silent Woman as a work of literature in itself, these characterizations are by far Malcolm’s strongest moments. I appreciate the criticisms she makes of biography, and of the delicate situation involved with still-living subjects; a person could almost be convinced that we should wait for everyone to have died before we write up their nasty secrets… but not quite.

Malcolm’s style is decidedly cerebral, classical, academic. She goes heavy on the allusions. This is not necessarily a compliment or a criticism, but read these lines:

The framework of deconstructive, psychoanalytic, and feminist ideology on which Rose has mounted her polemic against the Hugheses gives the work a high intellectual shimmer. There are close to eight hundred footnotes.

I’m afraid we have applied the wrong standard here! I certainly hope we’re not down to counting footnotes… of which, by the way, there are none in this book. There is nonetheless a great deal of theory, and it could get a little trying if that was not what you were there for. Just a head’s up.

Also, this:

In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination… We must always take the novelist’s and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the historian’s or the journalist’s. In imaginative literature we are constrained from considering alternative scenarios – there are none. This is the way is is. Only in nonfiction does the question of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.

This is off-topic and perhaps not highly relevant to the arguments we’re working on here, but I couldn’t let it pass by. Hello, unreliable narrators?? I guess Malcolm’s area of expertise lies in nonfiction, journalism, rather than literary criticism or *novels* – but really! I was surprised that she would make such a blanket statement that “fiction is true”. Just a few example of classic unreliable narrators that I have read might include Humbert Humbert of Lolita (she wanted it, right?), Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Nick in The Great Gatsby, that guy from Fight Club, Lockwood from my old favorite Wuthering Heights, and (famously, recently, and for me, unreadably) the two narrators of Gone Girl.

I fear that I’ve been rambling. I find Janet Malcolm’s mind-workings fascinating and thought-provoking, and intelligent; I appreciate all the research she made me do in her vocabulary and allusions (you will see a vocabulary lessons post coming soon). Despite The Silent Woman not being what I’d expected, it was well worth my time; and it did take time, being rather dense. She is not a light read, be aware. I’m still on board for Two Lives, though.


Rating: 6 dictionaries.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcolm

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

silent

Having been impressed by Janet Malcolm’s Iphigenia in Forest Hills, I knew I wanted to read what I thought was her biography of Sylvia Plath (and, secondarily, husband Ted Hughes). I am not a great scholar of Plath, but I’ve read The Bell Jar twice, and some of her poetry, and I thought the combination of subject and biographer sounded very promising.

I was wrong, though; this isn’t a biography of Plath, but rather an examination (even an exposé) of biography as a genre, using Plath as an example. How interesting! I was still on board, having been interested in some of the problems of biography (and autobiography, and especially, memoir) for some time. Also, I just finished Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, as you know, and she muses (and her mother muses) on some of the problems of memoir, too. So this is all welcome.

I’ll just share an example from Malcolm’s opening pages that struck me, and that helps to define her understanding of the problem.

The transgressive nature of biography is rarely acknowledged, but it is the only explanation for biography’s status as a popular genre. The reader’s amazing tolerance (which he would extend to no novel written half as badly as most biographies) makes sense only when seen as a kind of collusion between him and the biographer in an excitingly forbidden undertaking: tiptoeing down the corridor together, to stand in front of the bedroom door and try to peep through the keyhole.

Putting aside Malcolm’s use of the male pronoun (shame on you!)…

Part of me, of course, wants to protest on behalf of the Truly Good Biographies out there; but I know exactly what she means. So on the one hand: we read history for some lofty purposes, don’t we? And history includes biographying certain history characters, doesn’t it? Need we be voyeuristic to want to learn about Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor? I say, no. But oh, then there was my reading of Jaycee Dugard’s book, which made me feel just dirty. And I get the point with someone like Plath, too: she is a literary figure, but admittedly, a certain part (probably a large part) of her fame relates to the lurid details of her failed marriage and her suicide. We’re fascinated with these things. And, as Malcolm will go on to outline, another defining aspect of Plath’s case – and what makes her different from Susan B. Anthony or Major Taylor (and like Jaycee Dugard) – is that the other players in her story are still alive (or were when this book was published). They are still vulnerable to injury from the conclusions a biographer might draw, about Who To Blame; and naturally conclusions of this sort will be drawn, in such a tale of suicide and woe. Point taken, then.

Stay tuned for what looks like a stimulating read.

did not finish: Major Taylor: The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame by Conrad Kerber & Terry Kerber

major taylorI am deeply disappointed that this book didn’t turn out to be a good one, because its subject is deserving, and interesting, and near to my heart, and not nearly well-enough-known. “Major” Taylor was a track cycling superstar in the first decade of the 1900’s, when track cycling was new; in fact, bike racing and bicycles in general were in their infancy. He was unique not only in being one of the fastest men alive, but also because he was a black man in the Jim Crow era; this would have made even a quiet life (earning a livelihood, having a family) harder than some of us can appreciate, but it made a professional athletic career especially remarkable. As a track racer myself (retired now), I have a special interest in his story, so I was excited to get an advanced reader’s copy of this new biography.

I was going to try to pass this by, but my first hesitation came with this book’s subtitle. “The Inspiring Story of a Black Cyclist and the Men Who Helped Him Achieve Worldwide Fame” – I don’t know, call me oversensitive, but I can’t help but feel that this is like saying “the black man and all the help he needed because he was black” – it’s a little derogatory, isn’t it? Would the subtitle have been worded in the same way if this were a book about a white man? I furrowed my brow but decided to give the authors some benefit of the doubt and prepared myself to enjoy their work.

Unfortunately, however, Kerber & Kerber’s deserving subject can’t compensate for their writing, which I’m sorry to say I found painfully poor. It felt that they were going to great efforts to use big words, superlatives, and complex sentence structures. I repeatedly found myself hung up on odd wording; for example, Jim Crow is a “stale” tradition? I don’t think it was the “staleness” that made institutionalized racism unbearable. Or it felt like they were trying too hard for drama: “a rider didn’t dare show signs of weakness or dearth of bravado for fear of his rivals swooping in for the kill.” The authors are happy to assert that a bicycle racer who died in 1896 “surely” said such-and-such to his wife when he saw her last; Taylor “surely” squeezed his eyes shut during a victory ceremony for his hero. They make peculiar statements, such as: “in those days before effective helmets, nearly every seasoned racer suffered physical injuries or saw his body wear out.” Well, you’ll be shocked to learn that even today seasoned racers commonly suffer injuries and the “wearing out” of our bodies! I, too, believe the bicycle is a wonderful thing; but when you state that it “uses energy more efficiently than a soaring eagle” I would love to hear which scientific test backs you up. I would think a soaring eagle is a pretty efficient machine; do you mean that a bicycle goes faster per human effort than a soaring eagle goes per eagle effort? Because I think soaring is pretty low-effort. And I found myself stopping several times to puzzle over the choice of an adverb or verb: a journalist “hollered” a line in print that didn’t seem especially remarkable, or Taylor “gushed” that he found himself sitting next to one of the biggest champions of the day.

I don’t know. Call me nit-picky, but all these little issues and strange wordings distracted me terribly from the life of Major Taylor, and made me doubt the reliability of the authors’ research. I tried to reassure myself that this must be the first biography of Major Taylor, and thus valuable, even if poorly written; but no, look at that, there are several.

I stopped reading at page 57, sorely disappointed. Do note that this is an advanced reader’s copy; possibly improvements will be made before publishing. But unless they rewrite the whole thing from the beginning, I would advise looking elsewhere for the remarkable story of Major Taylor’s athletic accomplishments.

The Black Count by Tom Reiss

blackcountThis poor book got picked up and put down repeatedly as I dealt with other reading deadlines. It took me two and a half months to read! But I kept coming back. The Black Count came recommended by The World’s Strongest Librarian, and I bought it at Elliot Bay Books in Seattle when I got to finally meet in person my awesome editor at Shelf Awareness, Marilyn. So good vibrations unite in this read.

The “black count” is the father of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Much of Dumas’s work, it seems, was based on his father’s life and unique and outlandish experiences. I had not known that; I suspect many readers don’t. Tom Reiss’s work is a biography of Alex Dumas (the father: I will call him Dumas throughout), with an eye to the legacy expressed by the novelist (son: I will call him the novelist), and some background on the French Revolution. Napoleon figures rather heavily in Dumas’s later story and military career.

Dumas was born in Saint-Domingue, which is modern day Haiti, to a black slave mother and a white French father. His father went back and forth somewhat on Dumas’s place in the world, at one point selling his son into slavery but eventually giving him a good education, fancy clothes, and place in French society. He is a physical prodigy early on, adept at horseback riding and fencing, and his military career is illustrious from the beginning. Dumas is an ardent republican, enthusiastic about the revolution, not least because – and here I learned something I probably should have known – the French Revolution was decidedly liberal on its attitude towards black citizens, giving them near-equal or equal rights, privileges and access – at least for a time. Slavery was abolished in France, although the extent to which abolition applied to the colonies varied. And unfortunately, this egalitarianism was short-lived.

The dark-skinned soldier worked his way remarkably quickly up to general of a division, and gave admirable performances in actual hand-to-hand combat: something, then as now, that high-ranking officers often avoid. His feats are literally the stuff of legend, and those military stories are some of Reiss’s stronger moments, naturally. If history is to be believed, Dumas was absolutely worthy of the tales that his novelist son would spin. [Is history to be believed? Reiss did his own research and looked at all the ancient scraps of paper from the time; accounts tend not to vary; the case looks good. But from this historical distance, I think there must always be a question.]

Dumas married for love and had three children, the first of whom died in childhood. His star was rising when Napoleon came to power. Napoleon is the villain of this story, as he is encapsulated in the villain of The Count of Monte Cristo: he rolled back and reversed the Revolution’s racial equity advances, and considered Dumas a formidable rival, apparently because of Dumas’s great accomplishments; the latter seems to have done nothing actually wrong. Dumas is taken as a prisoner of war in Italy and has a miserable time there, which again plays into The Count of Monte Cristo. (Look for enjoyable, comical descriptions of Dumas’s highly formal correspondence with one of his jailers.) It does not appear that Napoleon is actually to blame for this period in Dumas’s life, although possibly he could have done more to get him freed sooner. Following his POW imprisonment, Dumas’s health never recovers; he loses his commission under Napoleon’s racist regime; and he dies when his youngest child, the novelist, is only four years old. The novelist’s glorified view of the father he remembers as Herculean will never be moderated.

As a historian, Reiss is perhaps a bit credulous of Dumas’s perfection. In a description of the soldier’s last hours, there is a priest called, which the novelist is careful to point out could not have been for confession, as his father had never committed even a single regrettable act in his lifetime. This seems like too extreme a statement to stand unquestioned – haven’t we all done something regrettable? …Especially those of us whose career was based on killing people? Dumas had a reputation for humane victory and protection of the defeated from looting, which is admirable. But I have a little trouble stomaching this unqualified hero-worship.

Reiss also unfortunately descends into dryness rather regularly. I several times considered giving up the book; but then I’d give it another go and eventually be mesmerized again by the narrative. He’s at his best when he lets his own story, of researching the book, creep onto the page; or lacking that, when he lets a primary source or Dumas-the-novelist pen a few lines. I should also note that my very slow, stop/start method of reading this book (almost unheard of for me) almost certainly made the story move a little more slowly and more disjointedly. I regret that, and it might have gone a little better otherwise. But I think it’s worth stating that things can get a little slow in the middle. Also, Reiss is happy to go quite a few pages without telling us who one of his characters is, and expect us to remember him. Again, better if you read it all straight through quickly. If you aren’t doing it that way, beware this small problem.

All in all, though, I did find myself motivated to finish the book, and I was rewarded. The Black Count is a good primer on the French Revolution and on Napoleon as well, and the sections that portray exploits in battle are lively. Readers looking for a great deal of insight into Dumas-the-novelist’s work will be at least a little disappointed; but I am definitely putting this book down with a renewed interest in rereading The Count of Monte Cristo, which I loved in high school.

A little dry in the middle, but a mostly-accessible history of the French Revolution and one of its forgotten heroes, with a nod to a very fine novelist who adored his father.


Rating: 5 trees of liberty.

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking by Olivia Laing

Laing’s poetic ruminations on the alcoholism of six authors will charm readers of travel writing, biography and literary criticism.

echo spring
Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring studies six authors whose lives meet at the juncture of creativity and alcoholism. While Laing (who walked along the river where Virginia Woolf killed herself for her previous book, To the River) acknowledges she had many alcoholic writers to choose from, the half dozen she selected justify and reward her nuanced attentions. Though F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams have been studied to the point of exhaustion, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman have been less comprehensively examined.

Laing’s exploration of these extraordinary men’s lives has many facets. The Trip to Echo Spring, named for the bourbon favored by the maudlin Brick in Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, is partly literary criticism–and no lightweight in that department, showing serious attention to her subjects’ works. Meanwhile, the level of biographical detail reveals Laing’s interest in their intersections with one another in life as well as literature. There are hints of travelogue as well, as Laing crisscrosses North America to visit the crucial locations in these writers’ lives, from Hemingway’s Key West to Fitzgerald and Berryman’s St. Paul, Minn., to Port Angeles, Wash., where Raymond Carver finished his life.

The common themes Laing finds in the cities and the bars where these men drank themselves into misery, death, and art include swimming, fluidity and the cleansing properties of sea and stream. She delves into the biology and psychology of of alcoholism, with several forays into Alcoholics Anonymous, and finally touches on her own upbringing as the child of alcoholics. While she focuses on the relationship between writing and drinking, another key part of her journey is personal–but her own history with drunks is only gradually revealed and never takes center stage.

These disparate elements come together elegantly in Laing’s quietly contemplative prose. She is sensitive to the struggles of these tortured men (among them several suicides) and deeply appreciative of their accomplishments, but also clear-headed about their shortcomings and their abusive treatment of others as well as themselves. A lovely piece of writing in its own right, The Trip to Echo Spring is a fine tribute to artists as well as a lament for their addiction.


This review originally ran in the November 20, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 bottles.

book beginnings on Friday: The Norman Maclean Reader

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

maclean

For this book beginning, we are treated to a previously unpublished chapter from Maclean’s abandoned book about George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

It was in the year – even in the season of year – marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Little Big Horn that Major Edward S. Luce retired as Superintendent of the Custer Battlefield National Monument. He and the Hill have long been closely connected.

Even in those few words, I recognize Maclean and his attention to detail and his interest. As I’ve just read in the introduction, Maclean’s obsession with the Mann Gulch Fire (see Young Men and Fire) is at least matched by his obsession with Custer; but his high standards and (argues the editor who wrote the introduction) his proximity to the subject caused him to leave this book behind.

I am super-extra-excited to have more Maclean to dig into. Let’s have it.

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