Friday, August 1, 2014

Let Us Now Praise Harper Lee: A Review of "The Mockingbird Next Door"

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper LeeAfter reading “The Mockingbird Next Door,” I admire Harper Lee even more -- and I didn’t think that was possible.

I can’t fathom why the celebrated author, now 88, says she never authorized the book. There’s too much detail here to disavow (the whole scene of watching “Capote” in her living room, for example). These details describe a smart, witty, engaging, opinionated and proudly unconventional woman who was born and raised at the right time, in the right place, and who had just the right artistic temperament, to produce what might be America’s greatest novel.

I love the Harper Lee portrayed in this book... the aging, lively and complex author who never wrote a second novel. And what difference does that make? If the Devil himself offered 10 million writers the chance to tell only one story of the caliber of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” he’d be able to purchase 10 million souls in a heartbeat.

I feel, in fact, embarrassed that Lee had to put up with the rest of us clowns in this new millennium. I cringed reading Marja Mills' description of watching the 2004 Super Bowl with the Lee sisters. Were those really erectile dysfunction commercials? Did they really just see Janet Jackson’s breast? There are the many cups of coffee Mills shared with Lee at McDonald’s, watching her neatly fold and refold spent packets of Splenda... going to senior exercise classes in Monroeville... waiting with Lee for a table at Bonefish Grill while surrounded by oblivious business-suited young professionals on cell phones.

Why did we drag down such a transcendent talent in her later years by surrounding her with such petty ordinariness?

I also read with interest about how much time Lee anonymously spent in New York, taking public transit and rooting for the New York Mets. I think now of all the times I may have passed her on the streets or ignored her on the 7 train when I worked in New York in the early 2000s. With respect to E.B. White, this gift of privacy bestowed for many years on Harper Lee is exemplary of New York City's true magic.

My quibble with this respectfully written book is that the author injects too much of herself in the telling. For all the time Mills reminds us what great storytellers Lee and her sister Alice were, we don’t actually get to read all those stories.

Apparently, many stories were kept off the record on purpose -- and, to me, this lends credence to the belief that Lee cooperated with its publication.

No matter. When it comes to Harper Lee and in spite of how much I enjoyed this book, I’m OK with keeping her life surrounded in a little mystery. I think we all owe her at least that much.

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