‘You Can Tell She’s Your Daughter’ Prayer.

As I went to bed last night, on passing my young daughter’s room I caught the tail end of her prayer:

“And goodnight to Granddad Bill, Uncle Billy, two of my YouTube’rs who died, my dog Rydal, Grace’s dog Teddy, Granddad Fred, Harper Lee and David Bowie.” 

On Harper Lee. Vignettes.

I have written about Harper Lee in the past, about my favourite book, about the ‘new’ book. I won’t tread old ground. Here are just a few further thoughts on the day this great author died:

 

I first encountered To Kill A Mockingbird in high school. It is one of the few things I took  with me from my English Literature days.

When our teacher read from the book, he would pronounce the name of the character ‘Scout’ as ‘Scoot’. One of the more vocal members of the class eventually expressed her irritation at this. The teacher appeared surprised. From that moment, Scout was always Scout.

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I understood the reaction towards Go Set A Watchman. But for me, it wasn’t an issue. I treated it as a stand alone novel. As an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird, it was no way a sequel.

Written before, but set after.

Scout was older. I was older.

I understood the high feelings about Atticus. Maybe it would help to see this Atticus as the melting pot from which the more familiar and beloved Atticus would emerge. Or to draw distinctions of perspective: in To Kill A Mockingbird, he is seen through the innocent, adoring but naive eyes of a young girl. In Watchman, he is judged through the eyes of a grown woman, returning to a small, southern town fresh from her experiences in the Big Smoke.

But, to me, these distinctions weren’t  necessary. I was just thankful for something, anything, new, from Harper Lee.

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I have never met anybody who called their son Atticus. But I do have a friend who called his daughter Scout. He is still happy with his choice.

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Harper Lee, in a letter to Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, discussing her love of books:

“[In] an abundant society where people have laptops, cell phones, iPods, and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books. Instant information is not for me. I prefer to search library stacks because when I work to learn something, I remember it.
And, Oprah, can you imagine curling up in bed to read a computer? Weeping for Anna Karenina and being terrified by Hannibal Lecter, entering the heart of darkness with Mistah Kurtz, having Holden Caulfield ring you up—some things should happen on soft pages, not cold metal.”

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In the post before last, I spoke of an against-the-odds moment of synchronicity when my ordered world was intruded upon by a casual coincidence. This morning, I said to my wife, almost in a throwaway comment: “I think the passing of Harper Lee is imminent. If it happens, I’m going to reread To Kill A Mockingbird, followed by Go Set A Watchman.” 

I’d had no revelation. And, of course, she was of an age.

A few hours later, I finished reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. On Goodreads, I gave it five stars: Brilliant and disturbing. Capote’s masterpiece. Capote never really gave Lee proper credit for the work she did on behalf of that book.

Capote and Lee appear to have been polar opposites. He craved the limelight, she chose to shun it. I have read that Lee’s sister Alice said that his jealousy about his friend winning the Pulitzer Prize was one of the reasons they drifted apart.

After finishing his great novel, my intention was to watch the film Capote, about the two writer’s research on the Clutter murders. Then I heard the news.

My wife and I watched the movie tonight. Philip Seymour Hoffman was great as Capote, but on this poignant night Catherine Keener drew my attention as Lee.  Another casual coincidence: on the day that Harper Lee died, I finished the last of Capote’s work I had yet to read. It was also the last work which had input from Lee.

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I have always respected Harper Lee’s decision to walk away after that first book. It also frustrated the hell out of me. There were tantalising glimpses of works that could have been: a novel about someone hunting a deer. An In Cold Blood type account of real life murders, called The Reverend. Go ahead, google them, there are a few crumbs to gather up in speculation.

But Harper eventually said no. Or, as she replied to requests for interviews:

“Hell no!”

To Nelle Harper Lee: for what you did give us, I will always be grateful. R.I.P

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A Library Burns Down

You know, in my head, I’m still a teenager. Early twenties at a push. But last night a little reality leaked in when I spent an hour or so outside, reading The Mockingbird Next Door, by Marja Mills.

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There is some controversy about this book. Harper Lee issued a statement saying that she had not participated in the writing of it. But (in effect a rebuttal of the rebuttal), her elder sister, Alice, issued one confirming both their involvement and approval of it. As did a close friend, who was quoted many times in the book. It does seem that Harper’s close circle of friends, for so long famously protective of the author and unwilling to speak about her, were suddenly available and willing to talk, indicating that they had indeed been given permission by the Lee sisters.

Perhaps.

Maybe the source of this new openness to engage was an anxiety about two movies being made at the time about Truman Capote, spotlighting Lee’s role in the research done for his book In Cold Blood, in addition to a new, unauthorised biography of Lee due to be published.

I loved the book, throwing as it did new light on a favourite author, and also a disappearing window of the world.

Anyway, I digress:

In my head, I’m still a teenager, and all that . . . but while reading, I occasionally came inside to get a coffee, answer the call of nature, etc, and in doing so I would catch a glimpse of my reflection in the kitchen window. Wearing a particular blue jumper, and my reading glasses, I saw in that reflection both my father, and my grandfather. I could imagine a long line of Murray’s behind them, too, stretching back far in time.

In Mills’ book there is an African proverb quoted:

When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.

All the acquired knowledge and wealth of life experience, gone. I get that.

I am by no means an old man, still in my early forties, but as the unacknowledged (by default) historian of my family, I often think that I should start writing down the things that my grandparents and other elders told me, along with the stories that I have discovered in the pursuit of uncovering the lives of my ancestors. Because if I leave it too late, all of that information would be lost, to my children and their children. The struggles; the triumphs. All gone.

Wasted.

It would indeed be like a library burning down.

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Watchman Set, Read, Gone. No Spoilers!

I finished the book in two days. And, after the loooong wait, I loved it.

But it has to be read not as a To Kill A Mockingbird sequel, or prequel, but as a stand-alone novel, albeit with familiar characters. Perhaps that will negate the sense of expectation for you-but I doubt it!

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The book is still concerned with the racism of the south at a certain moment in time, but instead of being seen through the innocence of the child Scout, it is now seen through the scathing judgement of the adult Scout: Jean Louise Finch.

It is in effect the first draft of what my favourite book evolved from, and so we must remember that the characters changed and evolved too.

For those of you who hold Atticus in such high esteem, you should maybe be prepared to have your figure of ideal rocked, although it is not so black and white (pun not intended). His brother, on page 265, gives a speech to Jean Louise about her father which he could so easily be giving to any of us who have admired this fictional character for so long.

After being so elated and thankful for the chance to read something-anything-else by Harper Lee, I find myself being greedy again, wishing that she had written more books. Perhaps the one that was meant to be the follow up to To Kill A Mockingbird about someone hunting deer, which was allegedly stolen shortly before completion.

It is up to you if you want to run the risk of shattering the image of your literary heroes and ideals, but I enjoyed it. My copy is already promised to the Polish guy who runs the coffee shop in which I read it in this morning. Might be worth a Latte or two.

Do Not Disturb, Scout Is All Grown Up

What is a guy to do, when he has tons of things that need doing, within a certain time frame, and then the postman knocks on with his copy of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman?

I will tell you:

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My wife will be pleased that I’ve cancelled all immediate conversation.

See you in a couple of days!

Please Don’t Kill My Mockingbird

I’ve just been blown away by the news that I’ve just heard, and I am usually the most calmest of Jackdaws.

To Kill A Mockingbird is my favourite book of all time, and I have long since reconciled myself to the fact that Harper Lee was not going to have any more books published. The frustration of this is up there with the split up of The Beatles, the deaths of John Lennon and Jeff Buckley, and the abandonment of poetry by Arthur Rimbaud at the age of twenty one. Oh, and also my inability to master the guitar.

The young Rimbaud.

The young Rimbaud.

But now I have heard that there is a new Harper Lee book to be published, the book that she originally wrote in the 1950’s and put aside on the recommendation of her publisher. It seems that this book is set twenty years after Mockingbird, and deals with the adult Scout grappling with personal and political issues on returning to Maycomb after visiting her father, Atticus, (that long-held ideal of fatherhood) in New York.

My #1, discerning reader that I am.

My #1, discerning reader that I am.

Apparently this book, entitled Go Set A Watchman, was written first, but when the publisher was taken with Scout’s childhood flashbacks, he or she persuaded Lee to tell that story instead, and so To Kill A Mockingbird was born. But now, sixty years later, that original manuscript has been discovered, and is being released on July 14th. A sequel to Mockingbird, but written first.

I really don’t know how to feel about this. I have never been so excited about the release of a book in my life, but that excitement is also laced with fear. Fear that, after all this time, that first book will not measure up. That, unexpected though this new book is, it will somehow fall short of a book that has to many, I included, set an impossible standard to follow.

I’m going to read it, of course I am. How could I not? But as that publication date nears, I fear that it is going to scare the hell out of me. I can already hear my wife:

“Get a grip for God’s sake! Get a grip!”

But I have waited for this since I was an awkward sixteen year old in my English Literature class.

Now:Amazon pre-order here I come.

Our marriage is going to be sorely tested.