Former Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills says she never expected to befriend Harper Lee, much less write a biography-memoir about her 18-month sojourn to Monroeville, Alabama, that included living next door to the reclusive author. But 15 years after Mills' first visit, her highly discussable new book, The Mockingbird Next Door, has ridden the literary wave for its jolt of homey, if not mundane, rituals of Lee's daily life. If a peek behind the curtain is what you are seeking, Mills does not disappoint. The comings and goings of the Lee sisters (Alice is older) are affectionately detailed, leading to the inevitable question as to why Harper Lee would allow herself to be portrayed so simply and unguarded after years of shying away from publicity.
For Mills, this assignment was intriguing for its possibilities, and an opportunity to prove she could still do her job despite a diagnosis of lupus. In 2001, she travels to Lee's hometown to speak to folks who knew the then 75-year-old Harper Lee (Nelle to friends) and to get a feel for Monroeville, the setting for Lee's fictional Maycomb in To Kill a Mockingbird, the instant classic about the 1930s South. With a reporter's eye for opportunity, Mills meets and impresses Alice, smoothing the way for a meeting with the famous Harper Lee, whose only book won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and was the subject of an Oscar-winning film. When Harper Lee called the reporter's hotel room, Mills recalled, "It was as if I had answered the phone and heard, 'Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.' I felt my adrenaline spike."
Mills injects a strong sense of place in her conversational writing, along with plenty of quaint colloquialisms. There are towns like Burnt Corn and Scratch Ankle, and fishing trips and coffee-sipping at McDonald's. She captures the Mayberry-like tone of Lee's voice with her frequent "bless her heart," "mercy" and "thanks a bunch, hon." Mills tenderly skims over rumored aspects of Lee's life, dealing with sexual orientation and drinking, although her exploration of Lee's intriguing relationship with childhood friend, Truman Capote, is one of the more interesting chapters.
Knowing Harper Lee's penchant for privacy, it is probably not surprising that Mills' book has come under scrutiny. The author has insisted she had Lee's blessing for the project. Harper Lee's released statement denies the 88-year-old ever gave approval; Alice recalled otherwise. Such matters won't deter readers who will relish this intimate look inside the seemingly uncomplicated life of one of the most complicated and beloved literary figures of the 20th century.
The shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was announced today, September 9. The competition was previously only open to authors from the U.K. and the British Commonwealth, but the rules have been amended to include novels written in English and published in the U.K., regardless of the author’s nationality. This is the first time in the award’s 46-year history that U.S. residents were eligible, and two Americans’ novels have made the cut. Joshua Ferris was included on the list for his darkly comic novel To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. Our blogger Tom shared this book with Between the Covers readers earlier this summer. Karen Joy Fowler was named for her novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, which was also featured on this blog last year.
The list also includes The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, J by Howard Jacobson, The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee and How to Be Both by Ali Smith, which have not all been published in the U.S yet. This list includes the titles available in BCPL’s collection.
AC Grayling, chair of the judging panel says, “As the Man Booker Prize expands its borders, these six exceptional books take the reader on journeys around the world, between the UK, New York, Thailand, Italy, Calcutta and times past, present and future. We had a lengthy and intensive debate to whittle the list down to these six. It is a strong, thought-provoking shortlist which we believe demonstrates the wonderful depth and range of contemporary fiction in English.”
The panel of judges will now re-read all of the titles on the shortlist and select the winner who will be named at an awards ceremony on October 14.
High school author, Amy Zhang’s first book Falling into Place is filled with twists and turns, taking readers inside the head of high school student Liz Emerson and some of her closest friends. Liz is an unlikable character, a mean girl who has decided that she is going to take her own life, making it look like an accident by driving off a cliff. The book goes back and forth between before and after the crash, unravelling the mystery of what led Liz to such a drastic choice. Before starting Zhang’s book, read what she had to tell Between the Covers about her first novel.
Between the Covers: The book shifts back and forth between before and after Liz’s crash, how did you handle writing a book that shifted in time so frequently?
Amy Zhang: Lots and lots of outlines. I drew diagrams and color-coded and made charts before I started writing, I did it again while I was writing, I did it before I revised, I did it after I revised and revised again. The last chart had something like seven colors on it for all of the different “time zones” of the book, and it reached from ceiling to floor when I hung it up.
BTC: Liz is such a complex character, where did you draw your inspiration for her struggles?
AZ: I guess when I thought of Liz, the characteristic that stood out was her loneliness. One of the first things I saw when I first began outlining the book was the image of her sitting in her closet on the night before her suicide attempt, and that isolation is what made me understand her. You’re always isolated as a teenager. You feel alone in your thoughts, as though you’re the only one to ever think, really think—you’re afraid to have the opinions you’re developing and you’re afraid to share them. You also feel sort of isolated in time, because you’re not thinking about consequences. You only exist in the moment. I think high school can be one of the loneliest places in the world. For me, being alone was sort of at the heart of Liz’s character, and her other struggles all stemmed off of that in some way. Liz, Kennie and Julia were all hiding some really serious issues, but it was pretty easy for me to relate because it was my reality. I think a lot of parents would be shocked if they knew what their kids were really going through every day, and what they feel the need to hide.
BTC: Were you able to draw on your experiences in high school to write about Liz’s high school experience?
AZ: Definitely. The scenes that stand out are Liam’s, which were especially hard for me to write. My school has this horrible tradition of voting people on to dance courts as jokes, and I remember sitting in class and hearing courts announced and just kind of wincing every time. And how do you stop something like that? I was pretty average in high school—I was never really bullied, and I hope I never bullied anyone like Liz did. I had great friends and great teachers, but up until junior year or so, I never really thought about the fact that I sat around a lot. I watched a lot of crap happen and I didn’t do much to stop it, except push a pencil around, and Falling into Place is an apology for that.
BTC: What is your writing process like, as a younger writer who’s still in school?
AZ: Late nights, early mornings, and enough coffee to drown out desire for sleep until the book is done. I write a lot during summer, and, um, during school. At least half of my notes for Falling into Place were scribbled in the margins of my physics notebook. I guess it really just comes down to making a schedule and sticking to it. I have a jar of chocolates on my desk to bribe myself when I need to — one piece per thousand words!
BTC: Who are some of your influences as a writer?
AZ: Music is a pretty heavy influence on my writing—before I start a project, I put a lot of effort into tailoring a playlist. For Falling into Place, it was a lot of Bon Iver, Imagine Dragons and Keane. For my current project, I actually have two: one of classical music, and one of mostly Birdy, Regina Spektor, Iron & Wine and Vincent James McMorrow.
For Falling, though, I think my biggest influence was the death of a classmate during my junior year. For my grade in particular, I think that was the moment we started realizing that we weren’t invincible, and all of the emotions from that were very influential while I wrote the book.
BTC: This is your first book; do you have anything else planned?
AZ: I’m currently working on a project tentatively titled This Is Where the World Ends, which is about a boy who’s obsessed with apocalypses and a girl who’s trying to make the entire world fall in love with her.
Get ready to laugh out loud as two young actresses share glimpses into their personal and professional lives. Danielle Fishel — remember Topanga Lawrence from the 90s sitcom Boy Meets World? — and Lena Dunham, creator and star of HBO’s Girls bare it all in poignant memoirs.
Fishel’s Normally, This Would Be Cause for Concern is more than just a tell-all, although fans will enjoy learning of her celebrity dating roster which included Lance Bass and Ben Savage. She also shares her undying love for Jared Leto, who rescued her from the L.A. freeway following an accident. Fishel, who is reprising her role of Topanga in the new Disney show Girl Meets World, is as entertaining and appealing on the page as on the small screen. Storytelling comes naturally, and she has plenty of juicy gems for readers involving awful auditions, red carpet faux pas and dating disasters. But behind the stories, she shares her neuroses and faults making this a refreshing Hollywood memoir.
In Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl, the actress reveals personal struggles which aren’t far removed from the character she plays on TV. Both deal with OCD, therapists and awkward dating experiences. Dunham excels at documenting her coming of age and her professional experiences in a male dominated industry. She tackles big issues with hilarity and honesty in this series of essays, sure to appeal to fans of David Sedaris and Nora Ephron. Dunham has said of this book, “I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you with this book, but also my future glory in having stopped you from trying an expensive juice cleanse or having the kind of sexual encounter where you keep your sneakers on. But I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all, and what follows are hopeful dispatches from the frontlines of that struggle.”
A school trivia night for parents goes horribly awry in Liane Moriarty’s new novel Big Little Lies. It was meant to be a bit of fun: parents dressed like celebrities, cocktails and trivia. By the end of the night, someone was dead. The answer lies hidden in secrets – both big and small – that some of the women are keeping.
When single mother Jane moves to town, she finds a sunny apartment near the beach. Her son starts kindergarten in a new school, but a pleasant first day quickly turns to accusations of bullying, and Jane and her son make their first enemy.
Madeline’s daughter is also in the class, and she befriends Jane due to her strong willingness to defend others. Madeline’s own life is in turmoil. Although she has a new husband, she can’t seem to forgive her ex for abandoning her for a younger model.
Finally, there is the beautiful Celeste, who has no flaws and leads a picture-perfect life. Celeste has two overly zealous twins and more money than she knows what to do with. But Celeste is holding on to a secret more devastating than anyone can imagine.
Moriarty had great success with The Husband’s Secret, and fans of that novel will not be disappointed. The author has a great sense of character and delves into the lives of these three women with aplomb. The reader really gets to know them as well-rounded individuals, and when they begin to struggle, the reader will be invested. The mystery of the trivia night is ever present, and Moriarty builds suspense by slowly revealing information that will lead to the inevitable finale. The audio edition is skillfully narrated by Caroline Lee, who gives voice to the three women and creates an enjoyable listening experience. Big Little Lies is a great novel to prepare readers for the back-to-school season. Let’s just hope your school year goes more smoothly!
As World War I rages towards its close, nurse Bess Crawford is called to London to assist a former patient who is being decorated for gallantry by King George. Instead, she finds herself An Unwilling Accomplice to the hero’s escape plan in this historical mystery by Charles Todd.
Confident that her patient, Sgt. Jason Wilkins, is settled for the evening, Bess enjoys a rare quiet dinner in a hotel dining room with long-time friend Sgt. Major Simon Brandon. Before retiring for the evening, Bess checks her suffering patient, making him as comfortable as possible. The dawn’s light reveals an empty bed and her patient’s discarded bandages. How could a profoundly wounded man, requiring the use of a wheelchair, escape from a public building? The military police demand the answer to that question, and they think Bess is the key. Overnight, Bess’ record as a dedicated nurse known for her bravery and skill is blemished when she is implicated in his escape. Further complicating an already difficult situation, Sgt. Wilkins is a suspect in the murder of a civilian in a tiny village. Determined to clear her name, Bess and Simon must unravel the threads of the deep secrets so carefully concealed by the villagers.
Charles Todd is the pen name of the mother and son team Charles and Caroline Todd. Together, they capture the essence of the historical period, weaving an atmosphere of quiet desperation as soldiers and civilians alike bear the burden of the horrific war. Few authors have recreated the grave effect on a generation with the realism and sensitivity of this team of American writers. Fans of Anne Perry, Jacqueline Winspear and Kerry Greenwood will find a deeply satisfying read. Also recommended are the previous works in this series, which begins with A Duty to the Dead. Todd also writes a series centered on a shell-shocked soldier who resumes his position as an inspector at Scotland Yard. The Ian Rutledge series begins with A Test of Wills.
While living in Borneo in the 1920s, Serena Lenore discovers a rare flower and cultivates it until she returns to the United States, where she turns one flower into an empire. Serena grafted the flower until she had acres upon acres of the unique white bloom. From these exceptional blossoms, she created a perfume with the ability to change the fortunes of the women wearing it. The perfume became a widely kept secret and Lenore Incorporated grew (by word of mouth) into a legacy that Serena could pass on to her daughters.
Three generations later, the business is still booming and Willow, Serena’s granddaughter, is ready to retire from the family business. First she must select a successor. The obvious choice is her daughter Mya, who has lived on the farm all her life learning the ways of the business. When her estranged daughter Lucia returns home, Willow realizes she has a tough decision to make.
Season of the Dragonflies is Sarah Creech’s debut novel, but as a professor of English and Creative Writing, this isn’t her first experience as a writer. Creech uses her Blue Ridge Mountain background as a foundation for her book, creating carefully depicted images of rural Virginia and working in stories she heard as a child. The characters’ relationships are at times strained, but in the end comforting and relatable despite the novel’s fantasy aspects.
Stephanie Perkins, the author of Anna and the French Kiss and Lola and the Boy Next Door returns with her third and final novel in the series, Isla and the Happily Ever After. This heartwarming new romance follows Isla and Josh from their homes in New York City to their boarding school in Paris, as they look for their happily ever after.
Isla has been in love with Josh from afar for ages, and when they bump into each other in New York City during the summer vacation before their senior year of high school, she hopes this is her chance with her crush. But when they return to the School of America in Paris, fondly known as SOAP, everything is just as it always has been. Josh is distant and secretive, and Isla feels awkward every time he’s around. She doesn’t give up hope, and when she discovers that Josh returns her feelings, she must learn how to deal with her new reality of happily ever after. Ultimately, Isla and the Happily Ever After is a book about knowing yourself as much as it is a romance.
Isla and the Happily Ever After is a romance that fans who have been reading Perkins for years will devour, and new fans will enjoy just as much. Having read Perkins’ other novels adds something extra to the reading experience, but Isla and the Happily Ever After can be read alone as well. Anna and St. Clair, and Lola and Cricket each have brief, yet wonderful appearances, but this novel is truly Isla and Josh’s story. With Perkins’ wonderful descriptions of New York and Paris, readers will feel like they’ve traveled the world with Isla.
September 13-14 marks the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key writing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Author Marc Leepson takes us deeper into Key’s life and world in What So Proudly We Hailed: Francis Scott Key, A Life. As Leepson explains, “Virtually every American knows the name Francis Scott Key. But they know just one thing about him. There was a lot more to the man than just that he wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner' under dramatic circumstances." Leepson shares more about Key’s life, his family and his relatively unknown influence on our country’s history. Watch a video of Leepson’s recent talk at the National Archives on BCPL’s Tumblr.
Marc Ferris’ Star-Spangled Banner: The Unlikely Story of America’s National Anthem takes a different approach, following the history of the song itself. When it was first published as a broadside, the song was actually titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry.” Key’s words were intended to match the already well-known tune of “To Anacreon in Heaven,” a song that Ferris refers to as “a bawdy, boozy ballad.” It was instantly popular in Baltimore. Later, when Congress named it our national anthem in 1931, “The Star-Spangled Banner” was one of several contenders for the honor. It was selected over other popular choices like “America the Beautiful,” “Yankee Doodle” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee.” This rich history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a fascinating read.
Baltimore will be celebrating this important anniversary with a host of exciting events September 10-16. The full schedule of events is available here.
Five Days Left is the emotional journey of two people facing life-changing situations and making ultimate sacrifices in the name of love. Debut author Julie Lawson Timmer took time to answer questions about this powerful novel — sure to become a book club favorite — which Jodi Picoult calls “unique, gripping and viscerally moving.”
Between the Covers: Mara and Scott are two ordinary people, living in different cities, pursuing dynamic careers and dealing with marriage and family. Over the course of five days, these two ordinary lives are extraordinarily changed. What was the genesis and inspiration for this story of a woman battling Huntington’s disease and a man battling the foster care system and even his own wife?
Julie Lawson Timmer: A few years ago, a friend of mine died after a long struggle with cancer. She was in hospice for the last several months of her life and she was spectacularly brave in facing what she knew would be her last months, weeks and days. During that time, and after she died, I was consumed with thoughts about what that must have been like for her — to know she wouldn’t be there for her kids’ graduations, their weddings, etc. I decided that writing about someone dealing with a fatal, incurable disease would be a way to explore the feelings my friend might have had. I also felt that exploring and writing about those feelings would be a way for me to honor her, even if the book was never read by anyone else. I chose Huntington’s because I didn’t want, or believe I had any right, to write my friend’s story. Five Days Left is not biographical in any sense.
I wanted to give Mara a break from her difficult situation, and adding the online group allowed me to do that. When I was casting around in my imagination for an online friend who Mara could become close to, Scott materialized, as did his job as a middle school teacher and coach. Technically, Scott and his wife are limited guardians of Curtis, not foster parents. Foster parenting involves months of background checks and classes and applications, etc., while being a limited guardian is a relatively immediate process, at least in Michigan. Given the urgency in Curtis’s situation, the foster system wasn’t appropriate. However, the concept of fostering and being a limited guardian are similar in that ultimately, you are caring for, making sacrifices for and, often, loving deeply a child who isn’t your own, and whose future is not in your control. In this regard, foster parents and limited guardians are in a similar position as step-parents, a role I hold. As a step-parent, I also care for, make sacrifices for and deeply love children whose future isn’t in my control, and I wanted to explore that.
BTC: In telling the stories of Mara and Scott, you explore sensitive issues such as foster care, suicide, infertility, adoption and marital durability. What led you to tackle such powerful topics? Describe the research process involved in ensuring accuracy of the details so integral to these characters’ stories.
JLT: [The research] was the biggest surprise for me about the process. When I first came up with the idea for the book, I actually wasn’t intending to do much research. I thought I’d spend a little time online learning a bit about Huntington’s – which I knew nothing about – and then rely on “artistic license” to fill in the details of the disease in a way that advanced the plot. But “a little time online” is all it took for me to realize how horrible Huntington’s is, and to realize there was no way I could write about it unless I did it as accurately as possible. I thought (and still think) I owed it to the Huntington’s community to get the disease right.
So, I did months of research on my own, and then I talked to some Huntington’s experts to confirm that my understanding of the research was correct, and that I’d represented it accurately in the novel. In many cases, I’d gotten the facts wrong, and I ended up making significant changes to Mara’s sections in order to correct the inaccuracies. I’m certain – and upset – that I didn’t likely get the disease completely accurate, but any mistakes were my fault, not that of the experts.
BTC: Mara’s voice is engagingly honest from the first sentence of the book. The reader is painfully aware of her anger, fear and even joy. How were you able to capture all these emotions and create an authentic portrait of one woman’s struggle against mortality?
JLT: I was highly motivated to get those feelings as right as I could. For my friend, who lived it. And for me, too, as I have certainly spent my share of time, as I imagine most mothers have, thinking about how I would feel if I knew my children would have to grow up without me.
It was a struggle, in early drafts, to keep Mara from feeling overly sorry for herself. But I spent a long time thinking about her, and who she was, and I knew that she was not a complainer. She was a strong, stoic woman who wanted to be treated that way. So, I dialed her down quite a bit and ended up with someone whose thoughts and fears were truer to what I believe Mara’s would be.
BTC: Almost even more surprising is the clarity of Scott’s voice. His love for his wife and foster son are evident as is the anguish he feels when he may lose one or both of them. How difficult was it to write from a man’s point of view?
JLT: My husband is a “guy’s guy,” which is how I’d describe Scott, and I have some close friends who are the same. I suppose I channeled them to a large extent. I did run a number of things about Scott past my husband – character motivation, turns of phrase, that sort of thing – to make sure I wasn’t attributing thoughts or phrases to him that weren’t ones a man would actually have. And there were times when my husband would say, “Uh, no way would he say that,” and I’d have to revise the dialogue. My husband’s help, from character motivation to dialogue to plot issues to making dinner and cleaning up so I could write is something I could talk about for a long time.
BTC: As heartbreaking as the story is at times, you tell it beautifully and manage to keep within the five-day timeline. Share with us your writing process for plotting this carefully constructed dual story. As a debut novelist, working attorney and mother to kids and dogs, how on earth did you find time to sit down and write?
JLT: Thank you for that lovely compliment! As for my plotting process, I am a major plotter/outliner. I carefully plotted how each story would go before I began writing. For an early draft, I wrote Scott’s entire story, and then Mara’s, and then did something close to cutting and pasting to get the chapters to alternate. In later drafts, I realized the story came out better if I wrote each chapter as it appeared in the book, rather than writing all of one character’s chapters at once.
As for the work/family/writing balance, that one was, and remains, tough. I discovered the only time people aren’t looking for me is between the hours of 4 a.m. – 6 a.m. Even then, because my company is global and I’m in the habit of checking email often, I could sometimes end up on calls or reviewing contracts before dawn instead of writing. But most days, those dark, quiet hours were mine, and I found that I could get two solid scenes written in that time. My wonderful husband set coffee every night and often left encouraging sticky notes on the coffee maker for me – something that made a huge difference, especially on cold, dark winter mornings.
BTC: How excited were you to receive such glowing recommendations for your novel from the likes of Jodi Picoult, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Sarah Pekannen? As a debut novelist, what was it like navigating the book world with publishing icon Amy Einhorn, and more importantly, can you clarify the rules of the literary drinking game that you and she created during the course of finalizing this novel?
JLT: I’m so grateful to those authors for taking the time to read a new writer’s book and then give a blurb for it. They’re wonderful. I was beyond excited to see those blurbs and honestly, I’m not sure it’s sunken in still. It’s surreal to think that these authors whose work I’ve admired for years have actually read my book, and that they liked it. I have a writer friend who emails me from time to time and her entire message will be, “JODI PICOULT!” or “CHRISTINA BAKER KLINE!” or any of the other names. When I read those emails, I think, “Oh, that’s right! It did happen!”
I loved working with Amy Einhorn (my same writer friend used to write those emails, too: “AMY EINHORN!”). In Amy’s first editor letter, which listed the various changes she thought I should make, she said the book should be “a five-hanky read” and that although it had made her sniffle a little, it hadn’t made her cry. When I set out to do my revisions, I put sticky notes all over the wall of our home office, to make it easier to organize the plot, and to my daughter’s horror, I added a few sticky notes at various intervals around the room with the notation, “MAKE AMY CRY!” After that, any time Amy emailed to say a certain revised scene had made her cry, I’d announce to my family, “Amy cried!” and we’d all cheer. A few times, I made the announcement at dinner, and we all raised our glasses to the fact that I’d made Amy cry. When I confessed this sordid family practice to Amy, she and I started joking that we’d invented a (terrible) new drinking game.
BTC: I’m sure our readers would love to hear what you’re working on next. Can you share any details?
JLT: Sure. Briefly, my next book is about estranged families, step parenting and the dreadful practice of “rehoming,” where people who no longer want their adopted children advertise them online and then hand them over to people who have merely responded to an Internet ad rather than going through the rigorous process of being qualified to adopt. It is completely different from Five Days Left, but as I expect every book I write will do, it explores different forms of “family” and how families survivel, or don’t survive, challenging situations.