… Life With Harper Lee
by Marja Mills
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
THERE can be few people in the English-speaking world who don’t know anything about Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which is more than can be said about the life of its author, the reclusive, elusive Harper Lee.
Her groundbreaking—and only—book, first published in 1960, has sold more than 40 million copies and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck.
Miss Lee, unlike her close childhood friend Truman Capote, has always eschewed the limelight, granting very few interviews through the years since the book’s release, preferring to live in quiet obscurity with her lawyer sister Alice in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.
Until 2001, that is, when the then 75 year old allowed Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills into her home and, subsequently, her small circle of trusted friends.
To Kill a Mockingbird—a now classic tale of childhood innocence and racial prejudice in 1930s America, as well as one of the 20th century’s best-loved books—had been chosen by Chicago Public Library as the first selection in its One Book, One Chicago program. Mills’ editor thought it was worth her going to Monroeville despite the famous author’s reclusive reputation.
Once there, Mills first made an impression on Alice Lee who, although in her 90s, was still practicing law—real estate transactions, tax returns, and wills were at the heart of her practice.
It turned out to be the key to the door, leading Harper Lee herself to call and ask if they could meet.
“It was as if I had answered the phone and heard ‘Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.’ I felt my adrenaline spike,” Mills recalls.
She was not, explained Nelle—Harper Lee’s first name and the one by which she is known to friends and family—granting an interview for her newspaper, “but a chance to visit.”
The interview, however, was finally written, by which time Mills felt she and the Lee sisters had forged a kind of friendship.
By the time, a few years later, and as a result of her battles with the auto immune condition lupus, she was put on her newspaper’s medical disability plan, Mills wondered what was stopping her spending her time off—a couple of months to a year, tops, she reckoned—in Alabama.
In 2004, and apparently with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. The idea of writing a book took about them took root in their conversations, she reports.
“Nelle had already told me several things she thought I could write about and correct regarding ‘the 40-year file on Harper Lee’.”
And there’s the rub.
That there is a fascinating story to tell is indisputable.
That Mills does a good job putting across the information she claims to have been given is also completely clear.
What the book lacks is objectivity.
Not only does the author note that she never asked questions she felt would be unwelcome, she is awestruck to the point of obsequiousness.
It is to the book’s and the readers’ detriment that her hero worship of her often grumpy subject is so glaring.
Planning to drive to New Jersey, for example, Mills is ecstatic when Nelle agrees to accompany her. Nauseatingly, she soon finds herself “fighting the overwhelming urge to get a window sign that said: Please Be Careful. National Treasure on Board.” [Capital letters included!]
The famous author’s phone number is recorded in her little pink address book under a made-up name. “I was afraid,” she explains, “if it were ever lost or stolen I would feel compelled to leap from the Sears Tower rather than owning up to the security breach.”
The inordinate privilege she feels, and to which she often refers, is an ongoing intrusion.
Respect is one thing, obsequiousness an uncomfortable other.
“Nelle wanted to go over my file of stories about her over the years to point out inaccuracies and set the record straight,” writes Mills at one point.
Nelle had originally wanted to call the book Having Their Say, also used in the title of a bestselling book about two African American sisters, one sweet, the other saltier, looking back on their lives, reports Mills. If that is indeed the case, there’s no chance of any confusion about this book’s intent. Perhaps it was a simple case of a willing person with a talent for writing being in the right place at the right time, not to mention having the right attitude.
“Three things out of Nelle’s control were in the works. Not one but two movies were being filmed about Truman Capote researching his 1966 bestselling book In Cold Blood in Kansas with his friend Harper Lee [Infamous, with Sandra Bullock as Nelle and Toby Jones as Truman; and Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.] Worse still, the first major Lee biography was under way by someone she didn’t know or trust. Charles Shields, the man working on the biography [Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee] had written Nelle to request her help. She wanted nothing to do with it.”
Mills acknowledges she wouldn’t have been around the sisters at all if she’d included anything they didn’t want to share in the first article. “Even the fact that I’d never asked her to autograph a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for me factored in.”
The result: instead of an insightful look at the life of Harper Lee, we have an extended literary love letter—and even that’s marred by a surfeit of sycophancy.
Footnote: Despite author Marja Mills’ assertions to the contrary, Harper Lee denies The Mockingbird Next Door was written with her approval. “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my co-operation is a falsehood,” she said in a statement released just before its publication. Penguin Press stands by the book.Comments »
… by Joanna Rakoff
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
It was Joanna Rakoff’s dream job. “. . . there were hundreds, even thousands of us, she recalls, “. . . all of us clad in variations on a theme—the neat skirt and sweater, redolent of Sylvia Plath at Smith—each element purchased by parents in some comfortable suburb, for our salaries were so low we could barely afford our rent. . . .
“Years ago,” she wryly observes, “. . . we would have been called secretaries.”
E-readers were nonexistent then; blog was an odd word for a little-known concept; and vanity presses were just that—expensive succor for self-delusional scrawlers.
Publishing was a respected profession, not a pay-as-you-go template on a computer screen (just hit send and it’s done.)
Agents were essential—as integral a part of the book world as the content itself.
Good writers were cherished; a few practically deified. Writers like Jerry.
“We need to talk about Jerry,” says Joanna’s new boss. “People are going to call and ask for his address, his phone number. They’re going to ask you to put them in touch with him. Or me . . . Reporters will call . . . Don’t tell them anything. Don’t answer their questions.”
“I understand, I told her, though I wasn’t sure I did,” writes Ms Rakoff. “This was 1996 and the first Jerry that came to mind was Seinfeld . . .”
All becomes clear a little later, when the young assistant notices what’s on the bookcase opposite her desk. It’s a collection of books she’s seen many times before: on her parents’ bookcase, in the English department closet at her high school, at every bookstore and library she’s ever visited ….
“Books so ubiquitous on the contemporary bookshelf I barely noticed them: The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories . . .
“Salinger. The Agency represented J. D. Salinger . . . Oh, I thought, that Jerry.”
Her friends are stunned when she tells them:
“Did you speak to him?” asks one.
“Was he nice?” asks another.
“He’s a fucking phony,” insists yet another.
Joanna’s life is precariously balanced between glamor and poverty. Every working day, the 23 year old leaves the plush, wood-panelled Agency (always deferentially capitalized) and goes home to a rundown apartment and a selfish boyfriend—one of those secretly chauvinist socialists.
Responding to Salinger’s voluminous and ardent fan mail is among her duties, though they’re “sort of” the least important. Only answer them when all your other tasks are done, she’s told. They’re just fans.
The form reply, from which she may not deviate, is just as contemptuous: “As you may know, Mr. Salinger does not wish to receive mail from his readers. Thus, we cannot pass your kind note on to him.” It does, at least, offer a thank you for the correspondent’s interest in the reclusive author’s books. What’s not clear is whether or not the author knew quite how cavalierly his fans were treated.
Among the many fan letters are what Joanna comes to think of as the Tragic Letters: “missives from people whose loved ones had found solace in Salinger during their years-long struggles with cancer, who’d read Franny and Zooey to their dying grandfathers,” etc. “And then there were the Crazies, of course, ranting about Holden Caulfied in smudged pencil, a dirty lock of hair falling out of the creased paper and onto my dark desk. But probably the largest group of fans were teenagers, teenagers expressing a sentiment that could only be summed up as ‘Holden Caulfield is the only character in literature who is truly like me . . .’”
Even though they’re given such short shrift by the Agency, she must read every single one, Joanna’s told.
“They’re mostly harmless, but occasionally we’ll get a death threat,” explains a colleague. “Back in the ’60s, Salinger got some pretty scary letters. Threatening him. And his kids. . . . We’ve been pretty careful since the Mark David Chapman thing.”
That thing was, of course, the shocking assassination of Beatle John Lennon. After he’d done it, Chapman sat reading The Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caulfield had made him do it, he insisted.
Be that as it may, Joanna’s heart is tugged by many of the letters she reads. Realising that what most fans want is simply some kind of personal interaction with the man whose books have meant so much to them, she defies the strict instructions she’s been given, and writes her own responses.
Over the course of her year at the Agency, Joanna—who is now a poet, journalist, critic, and prize-winning novelist—“finds her own voice by acting as Salinger’s.”
Does she ever get to chat to the enigmatic author whose life becomes so much a part of her own? You’ll have to read her beautifully crafted memoir to find out.
Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
With an appetite for enchantment honed in the hillbilly setting of rural 1930s Appalachia where, as a boy he roamed free, Tom Robbins has always managed to imbue his novels with a captivating otherness.
Interacting with a motley crew of “squirrel hunters, rabbit trappers, berry pickers, banjo pickers, moonshiners, tramps, real Gypsies, snake handlers, mule-back preachers (like my grandpa), eccentric characters with names such as Pink Baldwin and Junebug Tate, and perhaps most influential, bib-overalled raconteurs, many of whom spun stories as effortlessly and expertly as they spit tobacco juice,” the author was bound to see the world through different eyes.
Add to that an adult life that’s included a flirtation with the circus, learning to love kimchi (breath-fouling fermented cabbage) with a Korean bargirl, an ongoing affair with Japan, experiments with sixties’ psychedelia, and a moment as the Unabomber suspect, and it’s almost inevitable he’d end up weaving such wondrous tales as Still Life with Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues.
Now the eccentric wordsmith turns his offbeat talent to nonfiction with a book about his unconventional life. But this isn’t an autobiography, he says: “God forbid! . . . only authors who are household names should write autobiographies, and not only is my name infrequently tumbled in the lapidary of public consciousness, those rare homes in which it’s spoken with any regularity are likely under police surveillance.”
He’s not really happy for Tibetan Peach Pie (sub-titled A True Account of an Imaginative Life) to be described as memoir, either, “although it waddles and quacks enough like a memoir to be mistaken for one if the light isn’t right.”
What it is, he reckons, is a sustained narrative of absolutely true stories, arranged in more or less chronological order, although he insists he’s never kept a journal in his life and concedes “. . . some folks who were involved at the time may recall them a bit differently.”
Whatever it is, one thing’s for certain: little Tommy Rotten, as his mother was wont to call him, was destined to become a writer. Almost as soon as he started talking in complete sentences, he announced to his parents that was his intention. Too impatient to wait until he could spell or even scrawl words on paper, aged five he dictated full-scale stories to his besotted mother, whom he turned, he says, into his private secretary.
“I’d call on Mother to stop whatever she was doing and take dictation.”
A frustrated writer herself, she was a willing accomplice, although her tendency to occasionally change the wording to “improve” her precocious son’s style saw him throwing tantrums until his original words were reinstated.
And he was right to be miffed, because if there’s one thing Tom Robbins has in abundance, it’s an unerring way with words.
Tibetan Peach Pie, he promises up front, provides “intimate verbal snapshots of, among other settings, Appalachia during the Great Depression, the West Coast during the sixties’ psychedelic revolution, the studios and bedrooms of Bohemian America before technology voted privacy out of office, Timbuktu before Islam fanatics crashed the party, international roving before ‘homeland security’ threw a wet blanket over travel, and New York publishing before electrons intervened on behalf of the trees.”
Required reading for those who like their literature oozing with imagery, Tibetan Peach Pie is as engrossing as it is eccentric—just like the author’s life. His powers of observation and his eye for the offbeat, not to mention his penchant for the truly peculiar, remain undimmed.
Feel the sizzle with such evocations as: “Summer lay on the rural Southeast like a sheet of flypaper. Men, dogs, farm animals, commerce, time itself, seemed stuck to the page with a yellowish narcotic glue.”
As he once explained to his one-time editor Alan Rinzler: “Metaphors have the capacity to heat up a scene and eternalize an image, to lift a line of prose out of the mundane mire of mere fictional reportage and lodge it in the luminous honeycomb of the collective psyche.”
A word master indeed.
(Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch, a copy editor and a former books page editor.)
ARE you true to type? There’s a quick way to find out, apparently, and that’s to check what font you use when you’re bashing away at your keyboard – as most of us do these days, even if it’s only for e-mails.
Handwriting used to be the giveaway. Some cutting-edge companies even hired handwriting analysts to find out if job applicants were everything they claimed to be. Now they’re apparently using font choice to tell your type.
Ever since we discovered computers and cellphone texting, cursive script – what we used to call “real writing” when I was little – is dying out.
I used to be especially proud of my handwriting but all the hours I spend at the keyboard have literally cramped my style. Now I have trouble deciphering my own scrawled shopping lists.
And the formal calligraphy over which I lovingly laboured, creating gorgeous posters, certificates and scrolls? That’s been replaced by fonts with fancy names like Verdana, Lucida Handwriting (as if) and even – the outright cheek of it – Calligraphy, a soulless script whose flat perfection can never reflect the microscopic gullies, eddies, pressure points and passion of the artist.
No, the font’s the thing – and if you want it to say the right thing about you, you’d better find out what that is. A few years ago, bestselling horror novelist James Herbert was so furious when his publishers used what he felt was an inappropriate font for one of his books, he made them pulp the lot.
According to researchers at Wichita State University, you should stick to the classics if you want to impress – Arial, Verdana, Times New Roman, Georgia, Century Old Style et al.
Want to ditch your boyfriend? There’s even a font suggested for that. It’s the “cold, unemotional” Courier New.
But whatever you do, never, ever use one particular “goofball” font. Described in a Reader’s Digest article as “the wacky uncle of the font family”, Comic Sans is everywhere. It’s frowned upon by those in the know and there’s even a campaign dedicated to its demise.
Set up by designers Dave and Holly Combs, the Ban Comic Sans website has a growing band of followers. After all, type talks, reckon the couple. “Comic Sans as a voice conveys silliness, childish naivete, irreverence, and is far too casual … It is analogous to showing up for a black tie event in a clown costume. We are summoning forth the proletariat around the globe to aid us in this revolution,” they say, with their tongues only slightly in their cheeks.
“We call on the common man to rise up in revolt against this evil of typographical ignorance.”
And my own everyday choice? The unobtrusive, legible Times New Roman, which I must admit never gave me pause for thought before. It’s not surprising, I guess, as deeply psychological as all this is supposed to be. Though completely detribalised (I like to think), I’m originally a Brit, and this font is described as traditional and chilly – just like the land of my birth.
And guess who colonised and enslaved my ancestors. That’s right – the Romans. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)
Comic Sans cartoon by arnoKath
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I NEVER met Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, but I was at one of the special moments of his remarkable life, and he gave me a treasured moment in mine.
I was lucky enough to have an almost front-row seat at his inauguration in 1994 – next to South African singing star Miriam Makeba, whose career I was managing at the time.
Oh, happy, spine-tingling day.
What happened at that historic event is burnt into my memory.
Upstretched hands waved.
Tears flowed – mine included.
Air force jets flew overhead, their vapour trails streaming red, green, gold, black and blue.
“Never, never again will this beautiful land experience the oppression of one by another,” said the tall, stately man we’d come to see.
It was something everyone gathered there believed.
An “impossible” dream had finally come true.
But even the excitement of that day was topped for me by what happened some time later when our globally revered leader – while he was President of South Africa – diverted his attention from important matters of State to do something just for me.
A decade or so earlier I had struck up an unusual friendship with an elderly Sowetan man, Ntate Tsehla Phahlane. It was unusual not least because of the differences in our age, gender, and geography, but also because, according to the cruel apart-heid laws of the time, we weren’t supposed to be friends.
But friends we were.
One day a bulkier-than-usual envelope from Ntate arrived at my Hendrik Verwoerd Drive, Johannesburg, home (the irony of that address wasn’t lost on either of us).
He’d sent me a gift – a battered, slightly torn and well-thumbed booklet, The Historic Speech of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela at the Rivonia Trial.
It was something I’d never had access to before – Mandela’s exact words during one of the most evil miscarriages of justice the world had ever known.
I read it with a mixture of horror, fascination and awe.
It was a precious gift indeed, both for its content and for the generosity of my friend Ntate, who had obviously treasured it himself.
Fast forward to 1998 and, unbeknown to me, a plot was afoot in my household.
A little while before my birthday my daughter Danielle, wanting to make it memorable, had hunted through my “treasures”, extracted the precious booklet and smuggled it out of the house.
With the help of her then-father-in law, Eastern Cape-born constitutional law expert Professor John Dugard, who had known and worked with Madiba in the bad old days, my battered booklet was soon winging its way to the President in Cape Town.
“My heart was in my mouth,” she later told me. “I dreaded how you’d react if it went missing.”
And goodness only knows what Madiba thought when he saw the grubby, dog-eared booklet.
Would he sign it, John Dugard had asked. And, of course, he did.
But what really moved me to tears when I opened it on the morning of my birthday was that Nelson Mandela had not just hastily scribbled his name – he had taken the time and the trouble to make the inscription completely personal.
“To Stevie,” he wrote, “Happy Birthday, Nelson Mandela, 4.6.98”.
That seemingly little thing was, for me, a mark of uTata’s own greatness.
A demonstration that no one was too “small” to warrant his personal attention.
And that, truly, was the measure of the man. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this tribute has also appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper.)2 Comments »
July 18, 1918 – December 5, 2013
“A great tree has fallen ….”
(Xhosa praise singer and teacher Xolile Madolo)Comments »
by Geoff Berner
Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson
If you do, Geoff Berner’s Festival Man won’t change your mind.
Think it’s glamorous?
There are, of course, degrees of sleaze within the business and the “festival man” of the title, maverick Canadian music manager Campbell Ouiniette, fits firmly in the lower echelons.
Full of hubris and hustle, he’s on his way out and he knows it. Determined to rescue something from his always-on-the-edge, falling-apart life, even if it’s only his girlfriend Marina’s respect, he’s devised an intricate scam that just can’t fail ….
The egos, the excesses and the failures are vividly, realistically and comically wrought, probably because Mr. Berner (and that may even be the first time he’s been so elegantly titled) is himself immersed in the Canadian music scene. Signed to Mint Records, according to the book’s blurb, he’s an international touring singer/songwriter/accordionist who’s played in 18 countries.
No wonder the wreath of reefer smoke hovering over a trail of broken cars, dreams and bottles has such an acridly funny whiff of truth about it.
Right from the book’s unorthodox beginning, when the author “finds” a stack of the music manager’s “copiously stained, long-hand legal notepads”, this wild, perhaps not totally tongue-in-cheek tale trundles from one dire experience to another, ending up knee-deep in disaster at the Calgary Folk Festival with a chaotic, somewhat dangerous detour to war-torn Sarajevo along the way.
Campbell’s un-memoirs—he’d never write conventional ones, he vows—reveal an ego the size of a superbowl stage.
“Everyone knows I’m bad. I’m a bad man,” his rambled writings declare, “a bad drunk, a tornado of chaos, harbinger of strange music. Only some of them appreciate how important that makes me in this world.”
Huckster Campbell–like small-time music men the world over—is, of course, always on the verge of signing the next big thing. This time, it’s Athena Amarok who’s going to make his fortune.
Not only is she an Inuit throat-singer–sure to appeal to the “Leftiness” of the Canadian folk circuit—she’s also young and sexy: “… here was a Genuine Eskimo who made everybody who heard her simultaneously terrified and sexually aroused. I knew I was on to a winner.”
This time Campbell’s right. Unfortunately, he’s not the only one to notice her skills, and his discovery’s whisked away from him and off to New York straight after the very first performance he arranges for her. Never mind her scheduled appearance at the Calgary and five other folk festivals, for which he’s negotiated–and already spent–large guaranteed fees. Never mind the consequences if he doesn’t deliver the goods.
Still, if he can just bluff his way in, nobody actually knows Athena isn’t around. And, anyway, even if she was, Campbell’s been planning all along to unleash some of what he calls his most interesting (read “weirdest”) acts on the folk festival public. Now he’ll just have to expand the weirdness as he dodges festival management and bluffs his way around the stages, workshops, open mics and campfires.
If he succeeds, he reckons, people will finally recognise him for the visionary he is.
“And Marina,” he writes to his absent girlfriend, “you would go back to seeing me as the man of passion and courage who whisked you so brilliantly out of Yugoslavia … not as the guy who rolls endless hash-and-drum smokes and talks endlessly at the kitchen table while the sad, desperate musicians troop in and out of our little Vancouver east-side apartment, hoping I can find them a break.”
It’s a picaresque little tale, indeed, full of pitfalls, pratfalls, sex and drugs, but then so’s the business in which Festival Man is set. So be warned: if it’s the Sound of Music you’re after, this one’s definitely not for you.
Stevie Godson is a columnist for South African newspaper the Daily Dispatch and a former music industry executive. She was head of strategic marketing for BMG Music South Africa, signing some of the country’s biggest music stars, and also managed several artists, including internationally famed South African singer, the late Miriam Makeba.
Geoff Berner’s Festival Man is published by DundurnComments »
A TANTALISING invitation plopped into my e-mail inbox this week which, sadly, I’ve had to turn down. It was for a signing in Johannesburg by author Ivan Vladislavic who would, said the e-mail, be reading from his latest book, A Labour of Moles.
Vladislavic, one of my all-time favourite authors, is a former old-school newspaper sub-editor – a nit-picking word nerd like me, who just happens to have an enormous writing talent, too (those skills don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand), so it’s hardly surprising his award-winning first novel, The Restless Supermarket, leapt straight into my soul and stayed there.
Set in 1993 Johannesburg, its main character is bad-tempered, retired telephone directory proof-reader Aubrey Tearle, who’s having a tough time with what he’s convinced are declining standards in transition-phase South Africa.
The Restless Supermarket of the title is a 24-hour takeaway café, the name of which infuriates the old proof-reader, who frequently berates the Greek owner about it (at least, I seem to remember he’s Greek, although he could be Portuguese – it’s been a decade since I read the book).
The supermarket cannot possibly be restless, Aubrey insists. It’s the wrong use of the word.
The owner won’t budge. After all, his business runs right round the clock. He and his staff never rest, and nor does the supermarket. They are all, therefore, without rest. Restless, in fact.
That’s far from the whole story, though, if you’re thinking of reading the book – and I do wish you would. It’s just one of the many aggravations perfectionist Aubrey constantly battles on his uphill struggle towards tolerance.
Not too surprisingly, Vladislavic’s latest novel –I can hardly wait to get my hands on it – is also about words, or, at least, the alphabet, the building-blocks of their creation. It’s all wrapped up in what sounds like a strange literary fantasy. The title – “a labour” is the collective term for moles, by the way – is as intriguing as the content’s sure to be. A collective conundrum, I’ll be bound, and yet another reason for me to want to read the book, being a bit of a collector of collective nouns myself.
Talking of which, according to the Oxford Dictionaries’ blog, many of these oft-amusing collective nouns belong to 15th-century lists of “proper terms”, the first of which – The Book of St Albans – was published in 1486 and was subsequently reprinted over and over until well into the 16th century.
Within its three-volume covers were such delights as a blush of boys, a hastiness of cooks, a stalk of foresters, an observance of hermits, a faith of merchants, a superfluity of nuns, a malapertness (impertinence) of pedlars, and a pity of prisoners.
If you’re anything like me, you perhaps have favourites of your own. Of the dozens I’ve gathered over the years, I’m particularly fond of an argument of architects, a charm of hummingbirds, a murder of crows, an exaltation of larks, a fluther of jellyfish, and a knot of reporters (my most recent discovery).
I’m also, as someone unknown to me once said, forever disappointed that a group of squid isn’t called a squad. – Stevie Godson
(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)
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