The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

mockingbird next doorFew authors have so captivated their readers that with a single book their reputation as a great writer is ensured for generations. So it is with Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird and, well, nothing else. The success of the book is well known, as 50 years after its publication it is still a cultural touchstone. The book’s story is just as well known through the excellent film of the same name, filmed in 1962, just two years after the book was published. Her book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize, and the future was bright for the young author.

It is interesting that her childhood friend, Truman Capote, sought everything that Harper Lee came to avoid. While she helped him research his stunning “nonfiction novel,” In Cold Blood, her novel was accepted for publication. He was already famous, and seeking more attention with every move in his life. Lee, although initially open to the public demands of an author, quickly retreated.

Although portrayed as a recluse, she is really someone who lives a quiet, private life. When her health was good, she made occasional public appearances. But she chose to split her time between Alabama and New York City, living with her older sister (a lawyer) when home in Alabama. She famously refused interview requests (sometimes with a “hell, no”) and kept to her close circle of friends.

In 2001, Chicago Tribune writer, Marja Mills, requested an interview since Chicago had chosen To Kill a Mockingbird, for their one book, one city campaign. Mills found Lee’s home and ended up speaking with Alice, her oldest sister and housemate who also served as a gatekeeper of sorts for her famous sister. Mills made an impression, and she was surprised to soon find herself speaking with the Harper Lee. The two sisters took to Mills and she was given permission to speak with close friends, who were in turn given permission by Lee to share some stories. As the relationship grew, Mills (on medical leave from her job), was “given permission” by the sisters to move next door in 2004. This book covers those 17 months of friendship.

Harper Lee - Old

Harper Lee

This is not a biography, but a memoir of Mills time with Harper Lee, known as Nelle (it is her first name) and her circle of friends. Some reviewers have bemoaned the “banal” conversations, but I like Mills style. Better than a biography, you get a feel for what Lee likes to do, say, and think. You learn she lives simply (e.g. laundry at the laundromat), reads voraciously (as does her sister), has a stinging intellect, and a fear of disappointing people who recognize her in public.

You get also get a taste of her relationship with Capote, takes on why she never wrote again (e.g. cannot top the first book, avoidance of the public), and her admiration for her father (the basis of Atticus Finch). Perhaps without intending to, Mills also gives us a look at the life of a someone struggling with lupus, which costs her a job and slows down her writing of this book.

If you are looking for a biography of Lee, you’ll have to pick on another book (and Lee hates them all). Considering that Lee would spend nearly half her time in New York, you get no idea of what she does there. If you want to get a glimpse of what it might be like to hang out with one of your favorite writers in her hometown, this is a great book. While not profound, it is insightful and will be valued in the coming years as we seek to learn more about the private person behind a book that has a hold on the public.

It should also be noted that Lee has also said she did not cooperate with this book, but it is clear that she and her sister invited Mills in and knew she was working on a book. There is little in here that Lee should not like. Mills writes as a friend more than a journalist, and refuses to get into guessing games on Lee’s sexual orientation, her mother’s emotional state, or any of the other “issues” surrounding the writer. For To Kill a Mockingbird fans, this will be a welcome treat.

Charming Billy by Alice McDermott

charming billy coverAlice McDermott can spin a tale. With each page you await a new turn, a new revelation, but she does this without the “aha” tricks of a lesser writer. Instead, as a storyteller, you await her unraveling of a tale that you know tells us more than it appears on the surface.

In Charming Billy, McDermott sets before us the death of Billy Lynch, an alcoholic with a broken heart and life. Still, he finds a patient woman to marry and lives out a life filled with late night drunken calls, failed attempts at reformation, and ongoing quick notes he sends to everyone. He thinks of others, yet cannot face himself.

McDermott gives us real characters. There are no villains or heroes, but people who make mistakes at times and help others the next day. Billy loves his wife, even as he misses the Irish girl from his youth. His cousin, and the father of the narrator, Dennis, is the stable one if the family. But he too has his faults to balance out his ongoing receipts of Billy’s late night calls, or calls to help get him in the house in another drunken stupor. As the family gathers for Billy’s death, the stories pour out about Billy and others. We see people who have been dealt the blows of life, recovered, and moved on. Lives intertwine, allegiances are called upon, and some secrets are left secret.

Even Billy’s drinking, while devastating, is put in context by another cousin after his death.

“What’s nonsense is all this disease business” he said. “Maybe for some people it’s a disease. But maybe for some there are things that happen in their lives that they just can’t live with. Thins that take the sweetness out of everything. Maybe for some it’s a sadness they can’t get rid of or a disappointment that won’t go away. And you know what I say to those people? I say good luck to those people.” He raised his glass, raised his chin. “I say maybe they’re not as smart and sensible and accepting as every one of us…but they’re loyal. They’re loyal to their own feelings.”

Loyal to his feelings is true Billy, but only to himself. Still, in a drunken ramble, as he talks about the death that has overshadowed his life, we find he is loyal to his faith as well. These are Catholic folks, and Billy is committed to his beliefs. It is not simply a matter of fulfilling the obligations of mid-20th century Catholicism, but of believing in his faith. He addresses the issue of death head on, not with a Sunday school faith, but of one willing to let his faith delve in the darkness as well as the light. Death is an injustice, and horrible interruption of life — not just a mere part of life.

“Our Lord knew it,” Billy went on. “Our Lord knew it [death] was terrible. Why would He shed His own blood if death wasn’t terrible?” There was another pause, another sip of whiskey. “You know what makes a mockery of the Crucifixion?” Billy said. “You know what makes it pointless? Anyone saying that death is just an ordinary thing, and ordinary part of life. It happens, you reconcile yourself, you go on. Anyone saying that is saying Our Lord’s coming was to no avail.” … “What do we need the Redemption for?” Billy asked him. “If death isn’t terrible. If we’re reconciled? Why do we need heaven or hell? It makes no difference. If death doesn’t trouble us, the injustice of it, then we don’t need heaven or hell, do we? If might as well be a lie.”

Lies are a part of Billy’s life, but he does not know it for many years. When he discovers that he has long been mislead, he simply returns to his life. Of course, inside, he still struggles. And that is where we are left guessing. Everyone is busy trying to understand Billy, because Billy lived his life without involving others in his thoughts and feelings. And everyone seems to know they were missing out as a result.

Alice McDermott, Bethesda writer.©Patrice Gilbert   May 2008301-270-4986McDermott is a great writer who incorporates faith into her stories. I also highly recommend her novel, Someone, which I read last year. She is someone I’ll be continuing to seek out. Just for the record, here is her publisher’s official author bio:

Alice McDermott is the author of several previous novels, including After This; Child of My Heart; Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award; and At Weddings and Wakes, all published by FSG. That Night, At Weddings and Wakes, and After This were all finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. McDermott lives with her family outside Washington, D.C.

 

 

 

 

 

The Fault in Our Stars

the fault in our starsWhile not usually one for young adult books, I read John Green’s The Fault in our Stars along with my 14-year-old for a summer read. The book has been getting a lot of press (and it is now a movie), and having lost my 6-year-old to cancer 14 months ago, I’m a bit attuned to cancer-related books. However, there are so many bad books out there, I was worried this would trivialize a clearly non-trivial topic.

While everyone’s experience with cancer is different, Green gets it. Sure, I could argue details and teens with cancer will surely find issues to challenge, but this is believable. What struck me was how much he gets how cancer impacts a community, and especially a family. While the two teenagers, Hazel Grace and Augustus, are the ones dealing with life and death issues of cancer, we also see how their parents and friends handle it. Or don’t. Toward the end of the book we hear about all these people showing support on Facebook, but it is clear they have been absent from the daily lives of these teenagers and their families.

As a result, and because of newly shared interests, the cancer community creates its own world. For nearly three years our family was part of that community at a Children’s Hospital, and when we lost our son, we lost that community. The rest of the world, frankly, just does not get it. Green sees this alienation, sees how families respond, and respects that new world.

The title is great, as it a play on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar  where Cassius says to Brutus, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” Green is saying is that the lives of Hazel Grace and Augustus have been created by outside forces. However, they take that “fault” and refuse to let the cancer rule their life. Their trip to Amsterdam is a slap in the face of the victim mentality they could assume.

Most telling is when Augustus identifies himself with his cancer. “What am I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It is a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner.” This reminded me of the time my oldest son was asking my youngest son with cancer, Oliver, about what kind of robot he would be if he could be a robot. As they talked about the traits, my oldest said, of course, that Oliver’s robot would not have cancer. “Yes it would,” said Oliver. “The cancer is part of who I am.” In other words, cancer patients begin to live with, and not against, this horrible disease.

The book also captures the experience of grief, and I don’t think of giving away too much to say that in a book about cancer, there is grief. Hazel Grace describes it as when you are in pain and they ask you to rate it from one to ten. She never said ten. “I called it a nine because I was saving my ten. And here it was, the great and terrible ten, slamming me again and again as I lay still and alone in my bed staring a the ceiling, the waves tossing me against the rocks then pulling me back out to sea so they could launch me again into the jagged face of the cliff leaving me floating faceup on the water, undrowned.”

That is harsh. That is true. And that is why this book is worth reading, whether or not cancer has entered your life. You get a real sense of what it is to live with cancer as a patient and a family. And the cancer community loses people all the time, so they get grief.

If any part of the book could be changed, it is a sexual encounter between two teens that could have been avoided. It adds nothing to a connection that is already there, and does not send the best message to teenagers (call me a prude, but there are other options in life).

As a parent who has lost a child, the book had me early on, when Hazel Grace (who narrates the book) says: “There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you’re sixteen, and that’s having a kid who bites it from cancer.”

Not my words, but my feelings.

Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays

owls and other fantasiesMary Oliver’s gift of making you look anew at nature is well documented. Still, I approached Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays, with some trepidation. Was this compilation of poems about birds just a slick packaging/re-marketing of her previous work? It could be, but of the 26 poems appearing here, 10 have never been collected. In addition to the poems are two outstanding essays, including one written for this collection.

I’m not a birder — I can pick out the main ones, but my wife and teenage son know far more that I ever will. But no knowledge is needed. Instead, Oliver’s poems show you birds through the unflinching eye of a nature observer. This is not a collection of cute bird poems — it is a celebration of these creatures in their beauty and frightening power.

White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field

Coming down
out of the freezing sky
with its depths of light,
like an angel,
or a buddah with wings,
it was beautiful
and accurate,
striking the snow and whatever was there
with a force that left the imprint
of the tips of its wings–
five feet apart–and the grabbing
thrust of its feet,
and the indentation of what had been running
through the white valleys
of the snow–

Owls are portrayed as highly efficient killing machines. In her essay on owls she says “In the night, when the owl is less than exquisitely swift and perfect, the scream of the rabbit is terrible. But the scream of the owl, which is not of pain and hopelessness and the fear of being plucked out of the world, but the sheer rollicking glory of the death-bringer, is more terrible still.” Both of her essays in this collection are a natural fit within her poetry. Her prose writing is also poetic, even when describing a small bird her and her partner raise after it is injured.

Reading all the poems together show Oliver’s life-long love of nature and birds, culminating in this thematic collection. She has followed this model in a book of dog poems, which I have yet to read (but expect a similar style). The range of birds (swans, owls, hummingbirds, wrens, hawks, herons, and many more) show an appreciation for a species more than a particular bird. Oliver envies them for their flight, beauty, power, and song. In a poem about a thrush singing, “Such Singing in the Wild Branches” she writes of feeling like she is singing with the thrush in a fleeting, magical moment. She then offers this advice:

Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?

Are there trees near you,
and does your soul need comforting?
Quick, then–open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

Even those not of the birding persuasion will find this to be a volume worth spending a couple of hours with — I recommend on the front porch. For those with birding friends, this will serve as an accessible entry into the world of poetry.

How to Handle Adversity

how to handle adversityWell, I hesitated about blogging on this book. If you take a look at my blog, you’ll note I do not follow any set format. Poetry, fiction, essays, and non-fiction books fit in a variety of genres. As a Christian, I’ve also never hesitated to write about books I read pertaining to my faith. The “problem” with being a Christian is that many people typecast you, which we are better at doing to others rather than having done to us (I know I am). Yet, I like stretching out, so here I look at a book written by someone likely typecast as a fundamentalist.

Background: My youngest child (I have four) was diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer at age 4. After over 2 1/2 years of the best treatment he could get, he passed away just over a year ago (May 7, 2013) at the age of 6. I remember sitting in the waiting room everyday while he was going through radiation, and I would pick up Charles Stanley’s “In Touch” magazine and read his column. This is not something I would normally read, but when waiting for your child during radiation, you grab something. Anything. The typecast of the fundamentalist is that of fire and brimstone, but Stanley’s work was always friendly. Grandfatherly even (and he is in his 80s, so that makes sense). He wrote as one who knows his beliefs are right, and is comfortable talking with those who may disagree with him. In other words, instead of being defensive, he was open minded.

Because of what our family has experienced, I’m naturally drawn toward writings addressing grief, evil, and the Christian faith. When I was offered a Kindle deal on Stanley’s book, How to Handle Adversity, I decided to take a more serious look on how Stanley would address my way of life.

Stanley pulls no punches, and I appreciate his honesty. I certainly did not agree with him allSermonCentral-Contributor-Charles-Stanley_160x190 the time, but he does not hesitate to state his beliefs. A question that often arises in the midst of adversity, and certainly in the death of my little boy, is “why?” Why did this happen? Why to this child? Why to any child?

[Note: Given the context, I’ll follow Stanley’s reference to God as a male, and the capitalization of the pronouns.]

I’m comfortable knowing that such an answer is beyond my grasp. I don’t know why this happened, but I still believe in the goodness of God. Stanley is more clear in his thinking: “Some things are so important to God that they are worth interrupting the happiness and health of His children in order to accomplish them.”

As a result of this thinking, Stanley sees adversity coming from three different areas: God, Satan, and sin. The sin area is the easiest to understand, and answers the “why” clearly. If my sinful life leads to my adversity, I do not have far to search in finding the problem. And it is easier to address and overcome.

As for coming from God, Stanley offers many ways we benefit from adversity.  “Adversity, however, is not simply a tool. It is God’s most effective tool for the advancement of our spiritual lives.” Not surprisingly, Stanley often turns to Paul’s letters and life as an example of someone who saw adversity as God’s working in his life (including shipwrecks, prison, betrayal, and the mysterious “thorn” in his side).

Stanley (who keeps his arguments based on a rather literal interpretation of Scripture) also points out what he calls “the old standby” of adversity Scripture, James 1:2-4

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

While noting that these verses are often used to oversimplify sermons on adversity, he sees the foundation for our thinking in this verse. It clearly impacts his direction as he explores the areas where we benefit from adversity: we focus attention on God, are reminded of His love, pushed to self-examination, see His faithfulness demonstrated, and allows us to comfort others.

I’m not sure why God cannot do all this in less painful ways, which is where I see Stanley’s argument falling apart. He can give us reasons he thinks we suffer, and he can back it up with how he sees Scripture supporting that, but no one really knows why. If it was that clear, there would be a lot fewer books written about it.

Stanley goes from here to talk about our response to adversity, which he obviously states needs to be positive for our faith. Becoming bitter, withdrawn, and angry are ways we turn away from God, at the very time we need to be trusting in Him.

One area which surprised me was Stanley’s take on Satan. “You know that if God is behind it, He is going to use it for your good. If Satan is behind it, you know he works under God’s supervision.” In other words, even the work of Satan falls under God’s domain (which makes theological sense), but quite often we see this as the battleground: God vs. Satan. I’m glad Stanley does not slip into the error of blaming all bad things on Satan — but it is still confusing as to why God would allow Satan to do this (except, for Stanley, the reasons given above explain why). My view of Satan differs greatly, but is not the focus of this review. Still, it seems Stanley’s theology does not match his literal reading of Scripture, so he hits a wall here.

In the end, perhaps the book can be judged on its success. As someone dealing with adversity (to put it mildly), I do find much of what Stanley saying to be true. My faith has grown, but on the other hand, I’ve see other people’s faith destroyed by similar events. Stanley’s advice will help some, and miss the point with others.

I was impressed by Stanley’s writings, since people with so many books to their credit often get sloppy. His tone is friendly and welcoming, he knows his Scripture passages, and he knows that some of what he says may sound glib — he is concerned about hurting people. In the end, that is why I like the book. I may not agree with all of it, but Stanley seems like someone you can talk with and instead of becoming angry with disagreement, he’ll engage you in conversation. That is a way I would not mind being typecast.

Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery

Art Objects coverBeing an artist, it does not necessarily follow that you can speak about art. Artists gifted with the poetic mind can bury themselves in lifeless prose as they try to explain what is difficult to explain. In fact, the critics often sound more eloquent in exploring a world they do not even create. So it was with trepidation I approached the novelist Jeanette Winterson’s collection, Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery. But Winterson succeeds in delving into the world of art criticism with the power of a creative writer and creative mind. However, it as much her enthusiasm as her intelligence that makes this collection work. Art is no academic exercise for Winterson; it is a way of life. And her passion is infectious.

“A work of art is abundant, spills out, gets drunk, sits up with you all night and forgets to close the curtains, dries your tears, is your friend, offers you a disguise, a difference, a pose. Cut and cut it through there is still a diamond at the core. Skim the top and it is rich. The inexhaustible energy of art is transfusion for worn-out world” (65).

This, by the way, in an essay focusing on Virginia Woolf. The essays show Winterson’s love of modernism, but her essays on Woolf (two of them) and Stein (and extended comments on Eliot) are springboards for Winterson’s thinking. In other words, she not only knows art impacts our lives, she shows how this works by her reaction to art.

The first of three sections is a longer essay, entitled “Art Objects,” where we see how jeanette_winterson240visual art becomes important to her. Even though she really knew nothing about visual art, she learns to expand her life by expanding her exposure to art. “When I wanted to know about paintings, I set out to look at as many as I could, using always, tested standards, but continuing to test them”(16).

Winterson rails against the subjective “I just like it” mode of approaching the arts. She wants us to seek out what others like and why, but never hesitating to push back. With intelligence!

“The obvious direct emotional response is never simple, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ has nothing to do with the picture in its own right.
‘I don’t understand this poem’
‘I never listen to classical music’
‘I don’t like this picture’
are common enough statements but not ones that tell us anything about books, painting, or music. They are statements that tell us something about the speaker. That should be obvious, but in fact, such statements are offered as criticisms of art, as evidence against, not least because the ignorant, the lazy, or the plain confused are not likely to want to admit themselves as such. We hear a lot about the arrogance of the artist but nothing about the arrogance of the audience” (13-14).

The other two sections of the, “Transformation” and “Ecstasy and Energy,” combine several essays. In “Transformation,” we see the art that has shaped  and continues to shape Winterson — it is an ongoing process. In the final section she seeks out the personal in terms of how it relates to art. Her essay on “The Semiotics of Sex,” explores how her being a lesbian does and does not influence her art. She takes to task both the “straight” and “Queer world” (her term) for their polarizing approaches to art.

Her final essay applies much of the earlier discussions to her own work, but again, this serves as jumping off point. In “A Work of My Own” she makes a strong case for the importance of arts in the world.

“…each new generation considers itself more enlightened than its predecessor;  a view that science both encourages and depends on. Literature (all art) takes a different view; human nature, emotional reality is not seen as a progress from darkness to light but as a communication, with ourselves and across time…Whereas science outdates the past art keeps it present” (166).

She notes that while science debunks the past, “Shakespeare has not been sunk by the weight of four hundred years of scholarly and popular interpretations” (166).

Winterson’s writing is lively and thought-provoking. She challenges us to give art its due, to take time. This is not another voice saying we move too fast, but she is clear that art should make you pause. It is time well spent. What do you get from examining a work of art for an hour as opposed to putting on the museum tour headphones and being told what to think. Winterson would say listen to the headphones, but also spend time alone with the art. This goes for literature, the visual arts, music, all arts. This book is worth slowing down for and spending time with as we consider the impact of art.

Explore Winterson’s world at her website or on Twitter @Wintersonworld

 

 

 

Blood Meridian

Blood MeridianRarely, okay, never have I read a book which is so simultaneously abhorrent and appealing. Blood Meridian is a book that treats violence as a commonplace occurrence, and offers little respite in its continual assault on all (or anything, please anything) that is good in the world. The prose is stark, direct, and often undefinable (perhaps somewhere, but I often found words for which no definition can be found). The novel immerses you in a world of evil and violence far more terrifying than any post-apocalyptic book can create. And this, indeed, is how I came to this “masterwork” by Cormac McCarthy (bio). I’ve read a few of his novels, and consider “The Road” (blogged about here) one of my all time favorite novels.

This novel centers around “the kid” in the 1850s as he travels from his home state of Tennessee and joins up with the Glanton Gang, a real-life group of killers (there are probably more appropriate terms, but I’m calling them what they are) led by John Joel Glanton. Hired by the Mexican government to fight off attacking Native Americans, they killed any Native American they could since they were paid by the scalp. Women, children, unarmed men — it makes no difference. Even non-Native Americans were not exempt for their depravity as all of humanity appears to be at their disposal. What makes McCarthy’s descriptions so unnerving is the calmness and detachment used in describing the killings. You can almost read through some of them before the horror of what is happening dawns on you. I’m reminded of Tim O’Brien’s writing about the My Lai massacre during the American war in Vietnam. In the Lake of the Woods is a novel about a politician later found to have been involved in the massacre. But the most disturbing part of the book is not the fiction, but a chapter of excerpts from the actual court-martial records. What you see is this same dispassionate account of brutal abuse and killing. As if the event itself is not horrific enough, the presenting of it as a normal occurrence makes it even worse.

McCarthy’s prose is powerful. It can edge on the dramatic, and at times tips into the over-

Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy

dramatic category, but its power is clear.

Under a gibbous moon horse and rider spanceled to their shadows on the snowblue ground and in each flare of lightning as the storm advanced those selfsame forms rearing with a terrible redundancy behind them like some third aspect of their presence hammered out black and wild upon the naked grounds. They rode on.

The phrase, “they rode on,” is the perfect balance to that long, intricate preceding sentence. Language like his can be hard to follow in our quick read society, but a slow and thoughtful read pays off. Plus, he reminds you of the beauty of words (and perhaps I just tipped into the over-dramatic category).

While “the kid” is the anti-hero of this anti-western, it is the Judge who stands out as the most memorable character. A large, hairless, white man, he is often naked and always calm. He appears to be waiting for others as they come to him, and his intellect puts him ahead of both enemies and his fellow travelers. He makes observations in his notebook in order to understand and thus control the world, and is given to long, fascinating discourses on a variety of topics. He is both God-like and devil-like, omniscient and monstrous, and terrifying in his outreach.

Toward the end of the book “the kid” faces off with judge, the culmination of a relationship in which they dance around one another throughout the book.

The judge smiled. He spoke softly into the dim mud cubicle. You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgments of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledge a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Hear me, man. I spoke in the desert for you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

It is as if “the kid” recognizes his role in evil, and by the recognition (for there is no repentance) he has broken the fabric of their community. He recognizes the judge as the one behind the evil, but he cannot separate himself. As the judge says, “What joins men together is not the sharing of bread but sharing of enemies.”

Clearly, this is a disturbing novel. The fact that McCarthy bases this on historical occurrences does not allow us to write this off as some post-apocalyptic fantasy. Instead, we have to face the judge and his comments about our own culpability in human affairs.

You can find meanness in the least of creatures, but when God made man the devil was at his elbow.