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Sunday, August 2, 2015

Summer Reading

Finally! Something that made me blow the dust off ye olde blog. I cannot resist rambling a bit about Harper Lee's "new" book, Go Set a Watchman.

First -- let me begin where my obsession did. Harper Lee popped back up on my radar last summer, when Leigh Ann and I were at the beach, enjoying her new villa on Seabrook Island with Ranie, Jason and their boys.

We do love a good ol' flashback here at Popcorn and M&Ms, don't we, loyal readers?! (All three of ya who are left.)

Anyhoo, you will recall this was the era in which I'd quit my job to write a book. (Yeah...hey...what ever happened to that? Well, the short answer is I (a) decided I didn't want to move out of my expensive apartment in NYC (b) realized family events were too, er, "dynamic" to write a memoir (c) acknowledged there was no way I was going to start writing publishable fiction in the short term (d) enjoyed my funemployment to the max and wound up getting a better job this spring.) 

Anyway, while at the beach, us girls got to swapping notes on books -- and the fact that Harper Lee had some friends who gifted her with a year of living expenses one Christmas; she used it to finish writing To Kill a Mockingbird

LA mentioned there was a new memoir about Harper Lee, Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills. In 2004, Mills rented a house next door to the Lee sisters in Monroeville and spent 18 months as their neighbor, writing what she claims was an authorized memoir
Leigh Ann had gotten it from the library, so I started reading it immediately. And... yowza. I think the author had tried so hard not to betray Harper (Nelle) and her sister Alice that she ended up writing pure drivel. Or, as the New York Times called it, a "painfully earnest" and "sentimental" play-by-play of little old lady life:

Ms. Lee has a regular booth at McDonald’s, where she goes for coffee. She eats takeout salads from Burger King on movie night. When she fishes, she uses wieners for bait. She feeds the town ducks daily, with seed corn from a plastic Cool Whip Free container, calling “Woo-hoo-HOO! Woo-hoo-HOO!” 

Seriously, it was a total snooze, and I don't think I actually finished it. It reminded me of how hard it was to be a reporter. You have to walk such a line between nurturing your sources, cultivating those relationships, and depicting them honestly -- which may burn a bridge. I felt sorry for Marja Mills, who seemed to have tried hard to write something that would satisfy the public fascination with Harper Lee, without betraying the confidence the Lee sisters showed her. Yet she ended up with the worst of both worlds -- she wrote a crappy book that Harper Lee disavowed: 

"Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my cooperation is a falsehood," Lee said in a statement. 

Meanwhile, Alice Lee said -- and mind you, this was back in 2011, "Poor Nelle Harper can't see and can't hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence. Now she has no memory of the incident." 

The only line I saved from the Mills book was this one: 

"In the community of Monroeville, information about Nelle was currency. It could be spent, traded or saved for the right moment. Demand exceeded supply, especially because her good friends kept their interactions with her largely private. People were curious about where she went, whom she saw, what she said." 

Can you imagine what that would be like? It must have been a bit like living in a small town surrounded by paparazzi. No wonder she spent so much time in the anonymity of New York City.

Anyway, I was so fascinated and thirsty for more info that I bought Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, a biography by Charles J. Shields.

I could tell you a lot more about what I found interesting in that book, but I'll cut to the most relevant portion re: Go Set a Watchman's portrayal of Atticus Finch. Shields makes it clear A.C. Lee was more like the fictional character of Watchman than he was the saintly Atticus of Mockingbird:

Worth pointing out, however, is that Mr. Lee himself only gradually rose to the moral standards of Atticus. Though more enlightened than most, A.C. was no saint, no prophet crying in the wilderness with regard to racial matters. In many ways, he was typical of his generation, especially about issues surrounding integration. Like most of his generation, he believed that the current social order, segregation, was natural and created harmony between the races. 

Particularly interesting to me, given my small-town Methodist roots, is the way Shields portrays the confrontations between A.C. Lee, and the minister of First United Methodist Church of Monroeville, who was "preaching too much, in Lee's opinion, about racial and social justice."

I know a couple of Methodist ministers who could probably write their own books about some of those recent conversations!

Anyway, that's a long way of saying I wasn't surprised by the character of Atticus in Go Set a Watchman. And, because I'd gleaned from the Marja Mills incident that Harper Lee "ain't running on all cylinders these days," I at first thought I'd boycott this new book, as the events surrounding its release just seem so shady -- particularly the fact the draft "came to light" only after Alice Lee passed away.

But, in the end, I decided I just couldn't resist reading it. And I'm glad. Isn't part of growing up accepting that our parents are flawed individuals -- but we love them anyway? Isn't growing up about coming to terms with your mixed feelings about your family and your origins?

Watchman is about Lee's experience as a young woman who lives in New York City but feels ambivalent about her hometown roots -- she is both drawn to and repulsed by her place of origin. There is an "I don't see how you live in New York" passage with some Maycomb friends that reminds me of a conversation I had with an old friend in Quincy who was genuinely curious whether I "ever see any Americans in New York City."

Um, yes, Sir, I do. Bless your heart.

But anyway, I love the mixed feelings she has about living in New York but still calling Maycomb "home."
 "When you live in New York, you often have the feeling that New York's not the world. I mean this: every time I come home, I feel like I'm coming back to the world, and every time I leave Maycomb it's like I'm leaving the world. It's silly. I can't explain it, and what makes it sillier is I'd go stark raving mad living in Maycomb."

The most fascinating bits of the novel for me were about social class. Like race, it's a means of inclusion and exclusion -- a part of our identity that is assigned, not chosen, something we can never change or control.

Jean Louise has a discussion with her boyfriend in which he points out that she gets a certain amount of tolerance from the community simply by virtue of being a Finch. Some of Aunt Alexandra's comments about Henry ("we Finches do not marry the children of rednecked white trash") were reminiscent of comments I often heard when I was growing up. I kid you not, my grandmother once looked at a photo of a boyfriend and asked me, "Honey, who are his people?"

And while I've certainly sailed through a lot of doors in life, I've also had them slammed in my face a time or two. Lee had clearly felt it too:

"Have you ever been snubbed, Atticus? Do you know how it feels? No, don't tell me they're children and don't feel it: I was a child and felt it, so grown people must feel it too. A real good snub, Atticus, makes you feel like you're too nasty to associate with people." 

Whether it was overt or covert, major or minor -- the sting of exclusion still hurts, especially when it's over something like race or class that we can't change or control. And it can be particularly painful when we are adolescents and feel we are different, or we don't quite fit the mold. Henry points out to Jean Louise that she's been benefiting from advantages she doesn't even realize, because they've always been there for her. Those can be the best and worst parts of living in a small town -- where people know your name and your family's history.

When it comes to race, I think the events in Watchman are far more provocative, honest and realistic.
There is a benevolent white savior element to Mockingbird that is absent from Watchman, in which Atticus is willing to defend his housekeeper's son in part for selfish motives: to prevent radical outside attorneys from making political inroads among the county's blacks.

It makes me wonder if the publishers might have expected Lee's draft would be too confrontational for mass appeal. Most of us don't want to be preached at, do we?

So, is Go Set a Watchman a great novel? No. But is it worth reading? Yes -- especially if you are a lover of literature, and Southern literature in particular. And even more so if you're a writer yourself -- for the same reason admiring art isn't just about going to the Louvre or MoMA; it's about meeting artists in your local community and enjoying their work. Lots of books are worth reading, even if they're not bestsellers.

As an aspiring author, it was encouraging to see what began as a good draft was rewritten into an American classic, and to realize that even the greats have to write, rewrite, revise, and repeat.

Sometimes you write a good book. Sometimes you write a great book. Sometimes you write a crappy book. Sometimes you write a book that was right for the times. Sometimes you write a book that was wrong for the times. Sometimes you write a bestseller. Sometimes you write something that gets printed at Kinko's and passed around the neighborhood.

But at least you wrote a book!