Friday, July 25, 2014

THE CEPHALOPOD COFFEEHOUSE: THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR

Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

It's time for this month's meeting of The Cephalopod Coffeehouse, hosted by The Armchair Squid. To join us or to visit other participants, please click on the link in the previous sentence and you can get the info. I don't put the sign-up list on my blog because every time I do, it comes out wrong and I don't know how to fix it and sometimes I'm so tired of fixing things, like I repaired my own toilet recently, that I just don't want to fix anything else. Furthermore, it is not a simple task, this being The Queen of Grammar. I'm held to a higher standerd than other people because I hold myself to that standerd, and does anyone know why the word standerd has a red line under it? 

Ah, it's because it's such a good word. Am I right, or am I right?

Here's what we do in The Cephalopod Coffeehouse:

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.


All righty, then. The best book I finished during the past month is The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With HARPER LEE. This book is a can't put it down book. If you have other stuff you need to do, like if your toilet is broken, then don't start reading this book. You'd better fix the toilet first. 

I started Mockingbird about ten minutes after my mail carrier delivered it last Thursday, and I finished it the following afternoon. I took time out to do stuff I had to do, but I took no pleasure in my usual tasks. I wanted to read, and I wanted the book to go on forever.


The cover photo is of Harper Lee and Mary Badham,
who played Scout, on the set of To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962.

In The Mockingbird Next Door, former Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills presents a tender and touching portrait of two very unusual sisters: lawyer Alice Finch Lee and author Nelle Harper Lee. 

Mills traveled to the Lee sisters' hometown of Monroeville, Alabama, in 2001 to work on an article about the town, which is the model for Maycomb in one of America's most famous and popular novels: To Kill A Mockingbird, published by Harper Lee in 1960. Mills was pleasantly surprised when Alice Lee agreed to speak to her, and gave her a tour of the Lee sisters' modest home. 

Mills was even more surprised when publicity-shy Harper Lee asked to meet with her.



In 2004, Mills rented the house next door to the Lee sisters. She went to McDonald's for coffee with Harper, fed local ducks with the two sisters, helped them watch movies from Netflix (they thought she was a technological genius because she could order movies and operate the remote control), and, best of all, listened to their memories––recollections of Monroeville and of their lives. They were particularly eager to have Mills debunk some ridiculous rumors that had spread about them over the years.

Their mother was not mentally ill, they point out, and she did not try to drown Nelle Harper, which childhood friend and neighbor Truman Capote claimed Mrs. Lee attempted on two occasions. Nelle Harper denounces Capote as a sociopath. Their friendship ended long before Capote's death in 1984. 

Although Mills states that Nelle Harper told her stories that she should include in her book, and pointed out insistently that some stories were off the record, Mockingbird  isn't a biography of Lee. It's more of a memoir about the time Mills spent with the sisters and their friends in and around Monroeville. She delighted in Alice and Harper's companionship, intelligence, ability to use words precisely, and their kindness.

I now enjoy knowing that Alice calls her younger sister Nelle Harper, but some friends call her Nelle, some call her Harper, and some use the nickname "Bear." I like it that the Lee sisters value achievement over celebrity. Harper Lee is proud of the Pulitzer Prize she won for her cherished novel, but she doesn't like people fawning over her or asking her for interviews and money, while they seek ways to exploit her. I like the anecdote about Truman Capote spending so much time at their house when they were children that their father, A.C. Lee, often asked if anyone had put Truman out for the night. 

Mills reveals a couple of unpleasant facets of Harper Lee's personality, but does not dwell on them.

Sadly, Harper Lee had a stroke in 2007 and never regained the ability to walk. She became a litigious person. She also said she had never authorized Mills' book. Alice Finch Lee, still practicing law at 100 (the age at which she retired; she is now 102), issued a statement that they had indeed cooperated with Mills. Alice and some other old friends say that Nelle Harper is mostly blind and deaf and will sign anything put in front of her by someone she thinks is trustworthy. We don't know, however, if someone convinced Nelle Harper, for nefarious reasons, to try to kill the book, or if Nelle Harper just plain changed her mind, as she has long been wont to do.

It's sad to observe the life of Nelle Harper Lee after reading such a charming book, but I wouldn't trade reading the book for not knowing that Harper Lee is elderly, confused, and less than perfect. I've read and seen some interviews with Mills. She doesn't seem the con artist type. Besides, if she wanted to cheat the Lee sisters, all she'd have to do is repeat the lies that have followed them for years. Concentrating on the negative aspects and rumors about their lives would probably make for a better selling book than one that tells about little trips to Scratch Ankle, Alabama, and eating at a diner called Wanda's.

I purchased my copy of Mockingbird from Amazon at http://goo.gl/SN2LXA.

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With HARPER LEE earns The Janie Junebug Seal of Highest Can't Put Down That Book Approval.


Infinities of love,

Janie Junebug

Note: Alice Finch Lee and Nelle Harper Lee now live in separate assisted living facilities. If you've never read To Kill A Mockingbird, then hop to it. There's a reason I have a dog named Harper Lee and used to have one named Scout.

And have you noticed that Harper and Atticus have joined the lists of the most popular current names for girls and boys? Most students read the book in high school. Obviously, the characters stay with them. Gregory Peck played the part of Atticus Finch in the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird. Peck remained friends with Harper Lee until his death. His daughter named her son Harper. 

Shockingly, To Kill A Mockingbird was not included by the editorial board of the Modern Library in their list of the one hundred greatest books of the last century. It continues to sell thousands of copies and brings in about $1.5 million in royalties each year. Mills says that Harper Lee used her wealth generously, but quietly, providing support to charities and educating a number of people who never knew that the famous author took an interest in them.









50 comments:

  1. I adore To Kill a Mockingbird, both film and movie. As far as I'm concerned, Atticus Finch is the best father character in all of fiction.

    The Mockingbird Next Door sounds like a wonderful book. American Masters recently featured Harper Lee. Given your enthusiasm, you probably already knew that.

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    1. I saw American Masters and loved it. A biography of Harper Lee titled Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee is available. Harper Lee hated the book, according to Mills. I quite liked it.

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    2. I'll keep an eye out for that one, too!

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  2. I never read it. I thought it was a much older book than that though.

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    1. It's set in the thirties and the movie is black and white. That might be the reason for your impression. I think you would love the book and the movie.

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  3. I'm ashamed to admit it but I haven't been reading this year as much as I'd like to. I could blame it on university and my job, and my voluntary work. But quite honestly I've spent my free time with something else and set reading aside. But I'll do better! I promise. And this book is definitely on my reading list :)

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    1. I think you have plenty to do, dear.

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  4. I miss the days when I could read a book in one sitting. It doesn't seem like I give myself permission to do that anymore! As a teen, that was what summer was all about.

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    1. I rarely sit and read for long periods of time now. I, too, need to give myself permission to do nothing but read.

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  5. I've only seen the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, so probably wouldn't pick up the book since I already know what happens. But this sounds like a lovely book and I'll be adding it to my TBR list. Nice review!

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    1. You don't know everything that happens from seeing the movie. The novel has the kind of rich details that a movie can't take the time to portray.

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  6. Huh! This sounds fascinating. I'm so glad to know about it. Thanks for sharing Janie!
    Veronica

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  7. I have never read To Kill a Mockingbird. My brother used to reference Boo Radley moments and I never knew what he was talking about. So I saw the movie. I will read the book. I've heard a thousand times that I should. You JJ, should do more book reviews! Maybe I will try the Mockingbird Next Door as well. Well done.

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    1. Thank you. I'm quite certain you would love the novel. I don't know anyone who doesn't love it. When I subbed in a high school, I quite often told the students trivia about Harper Lee and the book and movie. They ate it up. I used to do more book reviews, but I've kind of gotten away from them. When BULLY FOR YOU is over, which happens very soon, I'll review more books. I remember a book or a movie in which a character spoke of having Boo Radley moments. I wish I could remember the title. Perhaps Google will figure it out.

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    2. I found it. It's the movie Benny & Joon. Love that movie.

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  8. I've followed news of Harper Lee over the years, less of her sister. Thanks for the review of the Mockingbird next door. It's not the sort of book I'm attracted to, but perhaps....

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    1. Thank you for reading, Joanne. I hope Laura has enjoyed archery. I've wondered about her all week.

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  9. I haven't read this book but I have read "To Kill a Mockingbird." I'm sure you're aware that a growing number of critics are coming to believe that Capote was responsible for much of the book and Lee, as his assistant, did the editing and proofreading.

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    1. Harper Lee was very much aware of that belief and was appalled by it. A number of other people have also been given credit for writing or heavily editing To Kill A Mockingbird. I absolutely do not believe that Capote was responsible for the novel. If that man had written the book, he would not have been able to keep his mouth shut about it. It's Harper Lee who did not get the credit she deserved for her work on In Cold Blood.

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  10. I've been hearing about this book; it's great to read a review of it. It sounds fascinating. "I like the anecdote about Truman Capote spending so much time at their house when they were children that their father, A.C. Lee, often asked if anyone had put Truman out for the night." I love this anecdote, too!

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    1. It's clear that Alice Lee and Nelle Harper Lee loved their parents very much. Their fondness for Truman disappeared as his alcoholism and drug use increased.

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  11. "Shockingly, To Kill A Mockingbird was not included by the editorial board of the Modern Library in their list of the one hundred greatest books of the last century." Shocking indeed.

    I think the phrase "having a Boo Radley moment" originated in Benny and Joon.

    "Standerd" has a red line under it because you spelled it incorrectly. Shayme on you.

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    1. Oh, buck you. That's what one of my great nephews said to his grandparents many years ago while seated in his high chair. He held up his index finger at the same time. He was raised by a single father, who was a teenager. He turned out very well. They turned out very well. You are correct about Benny & Joon. The Modern Library list elicited quite a bit of criticism because so few novels by women were included, and the Board consisted of men only.

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  12. I loved this book... and the movie. It's been sooooo many years since I read it, though, so I might just have to read it again. I'm sure I'll love it as much now as I did then.

    Mills' book was one of the ones featured in the Atlanta newspaper this past Sunday. The article made her book sound mildly interesting, but your review makes it sound more like something I'd like to read. Thanks for the recommendation!

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    1. Some reviewers seem to think that writing about having coffee with Harper Lee is boring. I find these mundane details of life with a literary icon sweet and touching.

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  13. When you said you wished the book never ended, that was the clincher. That has to be the best compliment for an author. Thanks.

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    1. I hate it when something good comes to an end.

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  14. Hi, Janie,

    I have to say this is one of the BEST REVIEWS I have read on a book! I usually don't like reading review as a rule, but yours captivated me from the beginning, much like this book did to you. WELL DONE!

    Thanks for the enlightenment on Harper Lee and Mills' book!

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    1. What a lovely compliment. You are so kind.

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  15. I am THRILLED to hear this book is worthwhile. I teach 9th grade, and we used to do Mockingbird every year. Now the middle schools have stolen it from us, so we are no longer reading it. However, I watched a documentary last year called "Hey, Boo" (ridiculous name), which was riveting as it included interviews from people who knew her (including her 100 year old sister) and Truman Capote. I will most definitely read the book! I also now a niece named Harper. ;)

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    1. I saw Hey, Boo and thought it was very good. The title doesn't bother me. It's what Scout says to Boo Radley when she realizes he is in the Finch home.

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  16. I must get that book and the coffeehouse sounds like fun!

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    1. It is fun. I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did.

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  17. I've been following the controversy around the book, but I haven't decided if I want to read it. I more want to read the Twain autobiography.

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    1. I think the only real controversy is in Harper Lee's mind. I take no pleasure in expressing my belief.

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  18. I've been following the controversy around the book, but I haven't decided if I want to read it. I more want to read the Twain autobiography.

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    1. I still feel the same way as I did when I answered your previous comment.
      ;-)

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    2. It gave me an error message when I posted my comment the first time, so I wasn't sure if it went through.

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  19. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books, and I was thrilled when my kids read it and loved it, too. Mills' book sounds like it's worth a good look.

    Oh, and Silver Fox is wrong. That red line means AWESOME WORD COMIN' THROUGH!

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  20. I LOVE that movie and just watched it again a few months ago! I shall have to read this book. Thanks for the heads up. :)

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    1. I just bought the anniversary edition DVD. I look forward to all the extras, in addition to watching the movie on a decent TV.

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    2. Oh, and I have read the book, BTW--lol!

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  21. Janie, I am glad to have a head-up on this book. It is definitely one I will read after I have cataract surgery and get new glasses.

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    1. Best wishes for your surgery, Linda.

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  22. I have never read the book or seen the movie

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  23. I can't believe you wrote "standard" like that. The travesty! ;0)

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