To Kill a Mockingbird is by far one of my favorite books of all time. I think I read it first when I was 14 or 15 years old, and I'd say it left its mark. And it doesn't hurt that it was made into an amazing movie. I read in the NY Times a few weeks ago that it was celebrating its 50th birthday. I decided that since it had been 15 years since I'd read it, that I would see if it still resonated. Even though I really like reading on the Kindle, I decided to buy a paperback copy for the weekend's reading which I hoped would be done on docks and poolside. And the first time Nola dropped her ball next to me on the dock and gave a shake, I knew I'd made the right choice.
What can be said about this book that everyone doesn't already know? It's prevalence in modern culture through high school English classes and the Oscar winning movie with Gregory Peck has pretty much embedded it, in some way or another, into the national collection consciousness. It's sold over 30 million copies since publication and continues to sell well annually. What I can say is that I love the book as every bit as much as I did the first time I read it, and I think I got more out of it than I did when I was in high school. I had forgotten that it's really an easy read. The language is not heavy and gratuitously complex. It's brilliant in its simplicity, but also in its ability to tackle and intertwine heavy themes while still incorporating humor. Harper Lee's mastery of written dialogue doesn't hurt either.
Continuing on my Harper Lee kick, I then read In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I'd never actually read this book before. Instead, my only exposure to the content was through the movie Capote and a tremendously bad made-for-tv-miniseries in the 90s starring Anthony Edwards (of ER fame) and Eric Roberts (Julia's not-as-talented brother). As is oft-reported, Harper Lee and Truman Capote were lifelong friends after growing up together in Alabama. When Truman Capote decided to undertake the writing of In Cold Blood he brought Lee along with him to serve as a researcher. And research they did, accumulating thousands of pages of notes that were eventually synthesized into Capote's "nonfiction novel."
The book is based on interviews with all of the players in the case, townspeople, investigators, and the murderers. It's brilliantly written skipping from one perspective to another to tell parallel stories that eventually collide. The theme is grotesque and violent, but the descriptions of the details of the crime are not gratuitous. Nonetheless, at times I found the book very spooky. I did find it sometimes difficult to determine where the truth ends and Truman Capote starts. I believe that the book has received criticism in that regard. I did enjoy the writing style, and the insights the book gave into criminal psychology. I also think that I need to re-watch Capote now.
The last book in my Harper Lee arc was Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields. Harper Lee has famously rejected the limelight since her book was published. She hasn't published anything since To Kill a Mockingbird, doesn't grant interviews or make public appearances. And while she doesn't appear to be quite the recluse that J.D. Salinger was, she does, by all accounts, lead a very private life. In this book, Shields attempts to recreate her biography through letters, interviews with acquaintances, and the interviews that she did give after Mockingbird's release in the early 1960s. I found this book so awful that I quit reading it about halfway through. It felt like the author was stretching trying to weave events together. Knowing that he hadn't interviewed his subject directly, I had a hard time buying his descriptions. And frankly, knowing that the author wants to be left alone the whole book felt a bit invasive. Further, Shields is a former teacher who primarily writes non-fiction for young readers and the book reads like a 6th grade book report.
More summer reading tales to come...