Monthly Archives: June 2014

Janie Reviews “The Mockingbird Next Door” by Marja Mills

When you think of To Kill a Mockingbird, you might imagine yourself sitting in a classroom as a 15-year-old, scribbling notes on a piece of paper about the importance of Atticus Finch. For other readers, you might recall picking it up at a bookstore on a whim and immediately delving into the old, small town setting of Maycomb. Some people read the book over and over and find themselves taping the spine back together to keep pages intact. One thing is always certain; To Kill a Mockingbird holds a special place for everyone that picks it up. To Kill a Mockingbird is unique to the literary world, not only because of its excellence, but also for its mysterious author, Harper Lee. Curious readers are drawn to Lee and her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama (the small town on which Maycomb is based), but little is known about the woman who penned one of the greatest and most loved American novels. That is, until Marja Mills knocked on Alice Lee’s front door in Monroeville on a hot summer day and was welcomed inside.

This is where The Mockingbird Next Door begins, and for anyone who has ever read Harper Lee’s novel, Mills’ new book is the perfect literary companion. It tells the true, personal account of the journey Mills took to Monroeville for the Chicago Tribune in 2001. She was assigned to cover the Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago program, which chose To Kill a Mockingbird as its first selection. Next thing she knows, she is on a plane to Atlanta and renting a car to drive the back roads to Monroeville, deep in south Alabama. Hoping to chat with the locals, Mills ultimately finds herself living right next door to the literary icon and her lawyer sister, Alice.

The Mockingbird Next Door draws readers in with its relation to the famous writer, who prefers to be called Nelle by her friends, but it’s the warm embrace the book gives you as you’re invited with Mills to sit down and chat with Nelle and Alice in their living room, go for drives to feed the local ducks, eat at Radley’s, and listen to the “grey-haired posse” share stories of Monroeville’s past that keeps you reading. While Nelle is certainly the focus, Mills doesn’t shy away from getting to know each individual she meets while living next door to the Lees. A favorite figure from the book is instantly Nelle’s sister, Alice, who is described by everyone as “Atticus in a skirt.” As a lawyer in Monroeville, Alice has made a name for herself, aside from her little sister’s celebrity status, and is such a fascinating figure in her own right that readers will yearn for more. When we first meet Alice, she is surrounded by books of all kinds from around the world and poignantly remarks that “This, is how I’ve traveled,” as she thoughtfully admires the books that have allowed her to study every corner of the globe. Alice’s knowledge of the world and passion for exploring through books is evident, but she is also the treasure trove of family history. Her stories of Lee family life, of following in the footsteps of her lawyer father, and of growing up in Monroeville each bring a sense of nostalgia to Mills’ story that show exactly what the Lee sisters believe: no amount of fiction can match the fascinating histories in real peoples’ lives.

Readers will enjoy connections Mills draws between the To Kill a Mockingbird Maycomb and the real town of Monroeville. She describes reading and rereading her copy of the 1960 novel making notes in the margins while learning about her new surroundings and friends. While reading The Mockingbird Next Door, it is hard to keep from going back to your own copy of Lee’s novel for a reminder of just how accurate the descriptions of Maycomb are to growing up in the South. While Mills gets closer to the Lee family than any reporter has done before, she is never reporting in the classical sense, nor does the book read as a biography. Instead, The Mockingbird Next Door immerses itself in a culture with great admiration and respect for its inhabitants, celebrity status aside. The beauty of the book is that Mills forms a lasting, true friendship with Nelle and Alice—there is never any pushing to get the glorious details she has included in her book, and everything is shared openly. The Mockingbird Next Door flows as naturally as the friendship that formed between the women, and it is always evident that there is a sincere care to not only share Nelle’s stories, but to carefully protect the privacy she desires. Whether you’ve read To Kill a Mockingbird once or a hundred times, The Mockingbird Next Door is an unforgettable experience every reader is sure to enjoy.

And don’t forget the upcoming Mockingbird Tribute! Wednesday, July 23 at 7:00 PM, at the beautiful, historic Alabama Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama, you have the opportunity to attend the literary event of the decade. For $35, which includes all taxes, you will not only receive a signed copy of The Mockingbird Next Door, but you will meet Marja Mills and hear even more about her new book and Harper Lee, as well as see exclusive, never before seen video on the big screen of Kathryn Tucker Windham telling her own Harper Lee stories. To top it all off, every ticket comes with an entry in the drawing of a 50th Anniversary Edition of To Kill a Mockingbird with a bookplate signed by Harper Lee! How could you possibly miss such a fabulous occasion? All seats are reserved, so hurry down to The Alabama Booksmith today to purchase tickets, or give us a call! We’ll see you there!

~ Janie

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“Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy” – Karen Abbott

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail:
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

                -Rudyard Kipling, “The Female of the Species”

With Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott, I’m trying something new: reviewing a second title by an author I’ve already written about. When choosing books for this blog, I try very hard to cover as wide a range as possible. In this particular instance, however, I just couldn’t help myself. I absolutely loved American Rose, Abbott’s 2010 biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, which I shared with you in May of last year. In my defense, this new book isn’t even out yet (we’re launching it on September 3rd) and I absolutely gobbled down the advanced reader sent to us by her publisher; if I couldn’t even wait the few months till pub date to read it, there’s simply no way I could resist reviewing it immediately.

What Abbott presents to us is the story of four very different women (two on each side of the American Civil War), all of whom chafed at the restrictions that society imposed upon them, and who were determined to change the course of the conflict in any way they could. As she makes very clear in the introduction, there was a sharp contrast between all the things women couldn’t do during the war (vote, run for office, fight, have any official influence on politics whatsoever), and all of the extraordinary things they actually did – but I won’t ruin the book by spelling all of the latter out here. For all that her subjects were so severely limited by the lack of a Y chromosome, they managed to make said limits work for them, to use their gender not only as a tool, but as a weapon, a shield, and camouflage, as the occasion called for each in turn, or even all at the same time.

There’s Belle Boyd, described as “the fastest girl in Virginia (or anywhere else for that matter)”, a staunch Confederate, and the epitome of a rebellious teenager. She begins her exploits by shooting a Union soldier who was menacing her mother … and she only grows more flamboyant and outrageous from there, even running through a hail of bullets to deliver a message to Stonewall Jackson in the middle of a battle. Acting on what she believes to be a divine calling, Emma Thompson, enlists in the Union army under the alias of Frank, and serves in turn as a medic, courier and military scout – but she had already been living as a man for two years before the war even began! At several points in her spying career for the army, she is a woman disguised as a man disguised as a woman; the various levels of her identity and subterfuge, how she juggles who she is with who she is pretending to be, are enough to make your head spin, and yet somehow she pulls it off.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew are spiders, operating in the hearts of Washington and Richmond respectively, heading up increasingly complex, clever, and effective spy networks under the very noses of the authorities – even though their sympathies were well known to those in charge. Despite both women sitting in the middle of delicate and far-flung webs of information and treachery, and with behavior raising more than a few eyebrows even before the war, in other respects, they could not be more different. Rose was a widowed Washington socialite with a scandalous reputation, numerous lovers, an outrageous temper, and more than a touch of Mata Hari to her espionage work; she relied on her friendships with men in power to obtain the information that she passed on the Confederacy, or in her diplomatic work in Europe. In contrast, Elizabeth was a wealthy, reclusive, socially impeccable spinster from a family looked at slightly askance for its abolitionist leanings, who hid her doings behind nerves of steel and an flawless facade of gentility.

It is made very clear throughout that these women did not (and could not) operate in a vacuum, and so they are surrounded by huge, wonderful, amazingly described supporting casts. In particular, there is one individual inextricably entwined with the story of Elizabeth Van Lew: Mary Jane Bowers, a former slave that Van Lew managed to insert into the household of Jefferson and Varina Davis as a servant. An educated, literate servant with an eidetic memory, who in the course of cleaning Jefferson Davis’ study managed to examine every piece of paper that crossed the president’s desk. One tiny link in the much larger chain of Elizabeth’s spy network, one small piece of the whole, but an absolutely crucial one.

Just as she did with burlesque in American Rose, even as Abbott tells the story of several extraordinary women, she also brings the world around them to life with delicious tidbits: tantalizing snippets that somehow manage to capture the entirety of a specific time and place, encapsulating despite their brevity. It’s the little things that bring the war to life: blackberries as a cure for diarrhea, boots and shoes made on a straight last, “neither right nor left, and must be broken into one or the other”. In addition, she dots the narrative with mini-cliffhangers, switching from one storyline to another at crucial moments, skillfully ratcheting up and drawing out the tension. It gives an inkling of the strain under which all four women lived, never knowing what would happen next, or if today would be the day that they were caught, exposed, or captured.

Among the four, I doubt that Abbott could find a wider variety of personalities, characters and exploits if she tried, so they do an excellent job of covering all the possible roles a woman could (and frequently did) take on during the war. Which is wonderful for us, because they only tell a small part of the story, while also representing something far greater than themselves. The four she focuses on were unique, no doubt about that, but they were not unusual for their time and place, and so they must stand in for and serve as examples of the many, many other women who accomplished equally remarkable things, and yet about which we know nothing. This is an aspect of history that rarely appears in the official record, and as such is story that needs to be told, over and over again, until it becomes an integral part of the mainstream narrative.

~ Paige

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David and Goliath (reviewed by Hunter Coleman)

Malcolm Gladwell, the titan of nonfiction with the gravity defying hair, is seated back at his throne again with his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. This time around, Gladwell takes on the notion of the underdog, and how contrary to what many may believe – or at the very least, believe that they believe – having disadvantages can, in reality, be a tremendous asset.

The book begins with a discussion of the two title characters. In Mr. Gladwell’s hands, this familiar story, like so many stories in his books, become even more remarkable by his ability to better elucidate on some of the finer details.  Far from being an overwhelming benefit, Goliath’s size is a hindrance, and he never stands a chance against the shepherd boy.  By the time Gladwell is finished pointing out all the bits and pieces of the story that you’ve probably ignored for years, you say, “Oh, of course. That makes perfect sense.” The best nonfiction books do that, after all. As he points out at the end of the introduction, “All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong”

Those readers who have enjoyed Gladwell’s previous books will certainly find much to savor in David and Goliath. His ability to connect diverse topics under his theses umbrella keeps his writing constantly fresh and exciting.  When you read this book, you are presented with an intellectual smorgasbord that includes Nazi air raids, a 9-year-old girls’ basketball team led to victory by a man who has never played the game, a dyslexic movie producer cutting major deals while working in the mail room, Vietnam war planners, California prison inmates, doctors at a hospital struggling to end suffering in a child’s leukemia wing, and much, much more.

Readers of one of Gladwell’s previous books, Outliers, will surely notice a discrepancy in his hypotheses. There, he wrote of the principle of “cumulative advantage.”  That is, strengths breed further strengths. The best writer in freshman English is encouraged to write more, and becomes a better writer. The best hitter on the baseball team is given more practice time, and excels further than his teammates. On the other hand, David and Goliath tells us that those people who possess seemingly disadvantages often become stronger by having to overcome them. So, which is it? Do advantages breed further advantages (Outliers) or do disadvantages breed advantages (David and Goliath)? The answer, obviously, is both. “If you take away a child’s mother or father,” he writes, to name just one example, “you cause suffering and despair. But one time in ten, out of that despair rises an indomitable force.”
Hunter Coleman

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