Mockingbird Calling

As a teenager, there are so many things that one doesn’t appreciate. My ninth grade Honors English teacher assigned the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, as part of our reading for the year, and we didn’t question it. I wondered who this man, Harper Lee, was and what sort of book this dead man had written. While my teacher, Mrs. Kraft, quickly corrected our wrong assumption about Harper Lee’s gender, she didn’t mention that the authoress was still alive. It was a small oversight, and being teenagers, we were either too disinterested or too lazy to care. I ended up loving the book so much that I read it a couple more times throughout my life.

Fast forward to the release of Go Set a Watchman. By then I was writing and seeking publication, and if there is one thing I’ve learned as a writer it’s that I would never want my first draft of anything published for the entire world to read. The idea was horrifying, and since I had heard that Go Set a Watchman was Harper Lee’s first draft, I refused to read it in honor of her. Still, the point I made at the beginning of this post didn’t hit home with me.

It wasn’t until I read Charles J. Shields’s Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee that one particular fact become apparent. Harper Lee had still been alive in 1984 when I read her iconic novel for the first time. At least this time I had a better understanding of who she was and how much of herself and her life she had written into her novel.

I’ll provide you with my impressions of Nelle Harper Lee rather than bore you with facts. At first I wasn’t sure I liked this brash person who didn’t seem to recognize or understand boundaries in other people’s lives. In situations where most people would be embarrassed by such behavior, it appeared that Nelle didn’t have the good sense to be ashamed. What I thought of as her complete lack of social skills made me wonder if she was autistic, and I absolutely do not say that as a thoughtless insult. On the contrary, Nelle’s haphazard navigation of life touched my mother’s heart, and I wondered if she had anyone who truly understood her.

Adding to my concern was Nelle’s mother’s mental illness, and I wondered if the lack of maternal guidance toward her late-in-life daughter also affected the formation of Nelle’s personality. Alice Lee, the oldest sibling, and A. C. Lee, Nelle’s father, certainly filled any void in her life. According to Shields’s account, they presented a resilient style of parenting that I don’t believe the sensitive artist within Nelle was strong enough to withstand. Support for her chosen career came reluctantly, and only after her success with To Kill a Mockingbird did they come on board.

Then the pendulum would swing in the other direction, and a soft, caring Nelle appeared. She was still outspoken but also attentive to other people often to her own detriment. Her close friend, Truman Capote, benefited the most from this side of Nelle. He took advantage of her gentle nature when he employed her as his “assistant researchist” during the writing of In Cold Blood. A bare mention that had to be shared with Capote’s lover was all Nelle received for the extensive work she did. Along with Capote badmouthing Nelle on several occasions and his obvious envy of her success, it’s no wonder their relationship became strained.

I believe the pressure to live up to the success of To Kill a Mockingbird overwhelmed Nelle. I also believe that as much as she wanted to be a writer, she only had one novel in her, and this is absolutely fine. She could have been quite happy for years writing articles for newspapers or short stories for magazines, and if the idea for a novel came along, she could have penned it free from the burden of living up to her prior achievement. But the public and her family wanted more. The public wanted another book they could sink their teeth into, and for some reason I never truly understood, her family wanted her back home in Alabama at least six months out of the year. The tug of war on Nelle, both internally and externally, did little to encourage her writing. A second novel never came to light, and after ten years the bloom of her success from To Kill a Mockingbird had faded.

For the remainder of her life, Nelle viciously guarded her novel and characters, not so much as allowing a cookbook named after Calpurnia to be published. She basked in the waning glow of her novel, occasionally enjoying a resurgence of celebrity with anniversaries of the novel or when someone wrote an article about her or her famous book. Otherwise, she led a reclusive life to the degree that no one could ever convince me she wanted or approved the publication of Go Set a Watchman.

So do I have a clearer picture of Harper Lee? Actually, without her memoirs or at least a book of her personal correspondence, I’m left with more questions. I would have loved to speak with her, to wrestle her out of her insecurities, or at least understand where she was coming from. I believe we could have been friends.

– – – – –

The copy of Mockingbird: a Portrait of Harper Lee that I read was published prior to Nelle Harper Lee’s death. I do not know how the revised and updated copy reads, or whether it supplies further insight into the authoress or the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Quite frankly, I enjoy the mystique surrounding this simple woman, and I don’t feel as if I need to know more.

Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag!

I had never read Erma Bombeck until a literary agency’s query letter specifications required me to find comparable books. I Googled books about families with a strong humor element, wrote down the titles, and placed holds on them at my local library. I also visited Books-A-Million to find the titles my library didn’t own, and I read the book jacket flaps, the opening paragraphs, and random selections throughout the books. One novel in particular seemed like it was going to be close, but I just didn’t feel a connection with it. The comparison to my novel ended up being slim at best. I never finished reading it.

I went back to the drawing board (Google) and refined my search for comparable books. I wanted truly funny family situations, the kind to which a reader could relate and which would make him or her laugh out loud. What I didn’t want were books that pushed someone’s social, political, or religious agenda or books that praised deep-seated dysfunctions in need of therapy and medication. Whatever I did returned a better selection of titles that weren’t just new books and authors, but many classic humor writers, too.

And I discovered Erma Bombeck. I had heard about Mrs. Bombeck as a kid, and I’ve read snippets of her writing usually on refrigerator magnets or bookmarks. At first I worried that her writing would be considered too old or irrelevant to today’s family, or worse, today’s woman. After reading Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag! I realized that Mrs. Bombeck’s humorous writing is every bit as relevant today as when it was first published.

What appealed to me about Mrs. Bombeck’s writing was that she blended her role as a wife and mother into that of her writing career. She used the years she wasn’t writing for a paycheck to gather material for the times when she could. She made sacrifices without sacrificing her family, and it paid off in fifteen books, a humor column that appeared in nine hundred newspapers throughout the world, and an eleven-year guest appearance on ABC’s Good Morning, America. Mrs. Bombeck held twelve honorary doctorates, was appointed to the President’s Advisory Committee for Women, and was repeatedly named to The World Almanac’s annual list of the twenty five Most Influential Women in America. Pretty impressive for a housewife.

Per Mrs. Bombeck:

Raising a family wasn’t something I put on my resume, but I have to ask myself, would I apply for the same job again?

It was hard work. It was a lot of crud detail. It was steady. Lord, it was steady. But in retrospect, no matter what deeds my life yielded…no matter how many books I had written marched in a row on a library shelf, no matter how many printed words of mine dangled under magnets on refrigerator doors, I had done something rather extraordinary with my life as a mother. For three decades, I had been a matriarch of my own family…bonding them together, waiting for stragglers to grow up, catch up, or make up, mending verbal fences, adding a little glue for cohesion here, patching a few harsh exchanges there, and daily dispensing a potion of love and loyalty to something bigger than all of us.

I cannot tell you how reassured I was to know that Mrs. Bombeck understood the importance of investing in her family. She understood that women aren’t defined by how much they earn or their status in life. She knew that the stay-at-home mother who didn’t make money doing what she did was every bit as important as the woman in the corporate boardroom pulling down millions.

Family – The Ties That Bind…and Gag! was a truly satisfying read, and I hope women today will realize that the greatest thing they can do for themselves is to selflessly serve others. The rewards are endless. Don’t believe me? Reread Erma Bombeck’s list of accomplishments above.

Prepare For the Future by Studying the Past

I have never wanted to distance myself from a book as much as I have Anchee Min’s Becoming Madame Mao. I have never wanted a book to end as much as this truth-is-stranger-than-fiction novel documenting the transition of Yunhe to Lan Ping to Madame Mao Jiang Ching. Anchee Min’s bio on the jacket flap states that she “has a personal connection to Madame Mao.” As a young woman, Min was recruited by a talent scout for Madame Mao’s Shanghai Film Studio. I wondered how her close proximity to Madame Mao shaped the story and which parts might have been revealed confidences and which were romanticized imaginings. In either case, there is absolutely nothing about Madame Mao to admire.

The novel initially drew me in with a prologue told in points of view alternating between a third person omniscient narrator and the young woman who would become Madame Mao. The dual storytelling was a refreshing and intelligent approach to revealing the tale as the reader is given an outsider’s view to Madame Mao’s story and then drawn into her perspective complete with emotions and desires, inner details and thoughts. And that is where the good in this book ends.

The woman who became Madame Mao did indeed have a horrible beginning to her life. It marred her existence with overwhelming amounts of insecurity that would haunt her forever. She combatted her fears by throwing herself into her one passion: acting. This allowed her to constantly transform herself into who she needed to be to survive. As heroic as this sounds, Madame Mao never learned grace or forgiveness. Instead, she used China as her stage, cast herself as the leading lady, treated the people of China as mere props, and was nothing more than a lying manipulator who destroyed anyone in her way.

Revenge against people she disliked ended in imprisonment and murder. Actors and politicians who snubbed her, regardless how of long ago the supposed offense took place, found themselves on Madame Mao’s hit list. Jealousy for any woman in a stable marriage, especially if the woman’s husband was close to Mao Tse Tung, poisoned her mind and her actions. She was evil personified, and I cannot feel sorry for her.

The novel has Madame Mao claiming she conducted herself as she did for love. Her twisted version of love was to insert herself in a situation where her affection quickly faded in the face of her true desire to achieve power and rule. Another claim was that she was helpless to act any other way than how she did, and she points the finger back at Mao when she said, “I was Chairman Mao’s dog. I bit whomever he asked me to bite.” She only did this to maintain his favor in the hopes of ruling after his death, and I believe that the cowardly act of denying responsibility for her own actions makes her even more despicable.

As troubling as the history of this psychotic, vindictive woman is, what I find more disturbing is the fact that the history appears to be repeating itself in America. And it’s not even our history. The battle for control of media outlets is one such example. The novel has Madame Mao stating “I feel the power of the media. The way it washes and bleaches minds.” All other forms of media were illegal except her operas, ballets, and films which pushed Mao’s Communist agenda.

America hasn’t reached the level where a simple family feud between a child and a step-parent can end in public humiliation, imprisonment, torture, and death, but every day the news and entertainers denounce major political figures based on rumor and imagination. I fear the “get evidence and produce witnesses” order of Madame Mao’s day is not far off.

Another familiar tactic I recognize was when Madame Mao, together with her husband, upended China by gaining control of the students. Their young impressionable minds were subject to the manipulation, and the Maos made no secret of the fact that they intended to get the students on their side with rallies and speeches meant to whip them into a frenzy of action.

Of course, this begs the question of action toward what end? When looking for understanding and clarification, Marshal Tan Zhen-lin asked Mao, “What is the Cultural Revolution if its goal is to abolish order? Why torture the founding fathers of the republic? What’s the point in creating factions in the army? To tear down the country? Make me get it, Chairman.” Mao responded with a tirade about not allowing anyone to stop the Cultural Revolution, fully supporting the Red Guards, and endorsing chaos and violence as a means of achieving some arbitrary goal. The question of what’s the point, what’s the purpose was left unanswered.

The portion of the reign of terror perpetrated by Madame Mao made her an empress ruling on the ashes of China and the Chinese people. She was at the forefront of the destruction from within. Twenty million lost their lives to this madness. Her place beside the likes of Mao, Hitler, and Stalin is forever secured in history.

Breathe

For those who have been following me any time at all, you know I’m not one to watch many films. I’m all about the books. But every now and then, I’ll spy a trailer for a film that looks as if it simply must be watched. Such was the case with Breathe.

Breathe is the true-to-life story of Robin Cavendish who caught polio in 1958 at the age of twenty-eight while in Kenya with his wife, Diana. Robin’s initial reaction to his complete paralysis and inability to breathe without mechanical assistance was to die, and he requested his wife turn off the machine allowing him to do so.

Diana, pregnant with their son, refused to let Robin die. She made it clear that she did not wish to start over with anyone else. Rather, with love-conquers-all determination, she told Robin that she wanted their son, Jonathan, to know him and asked what she could do. To Robin’s reply of “get me out of here,” Diana helped him escape the confines of the hospital and the narrow-minded physician who would have her husband live his remaining days not only physically disabled but disabled in spirit as well.

I won’t spoil the movie for you by detailing the adventures Robin and Diana enjoyed, but I will say that what could have been a depressing movie was actually quite uplifting. Robin and Diana became advocates for improving the quality of life for disabled people. The best part was that Robin lived more than three decades longer than he was supposed to. Still, you will need a box of tissues when the film comes to its conclusion.

Prior to watching Breathe, I admit I wasn’t a fan of Andrew Garfield. My first encounter with the actor was the disturbing movie Boy A in which he played a child murderer. When combined with his less than memorable stints as Spiderman, his role in the disconcerting film Never Let Me Go, and his part in the disaster The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, I didn’t bother following his career. I understand his acting in Hacksaw Ridge was quite good, but I have difficulty watching war movies no matter how much my son begs me.

Perhaps starring in the dismal films was simply a means of paying his dues until the better roles came along. Whatever the reason, Andrew Garfield has finally earned my respect for his acting in Breathe. Let’s hope he can continue to be offered such roles as I would be interested to see how he matures as an actor.

The Angel’s Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Carlos Ruiz Zafón takes a walk on the darker supernatural side in The Angel’s Game, his second installment in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books series. Zafón’s Gothic tale is actually a prequel to his successful first book in the series, The Shadow of the Wind. If you haven’t read the first book, I highly recommend you do as it is still the best in the series in this writer’s opinion.

Still, The Angel’s Game is not to be missed as it returns the reader to Barcelona, Spain, this time in the 1920s, as well as the bookshop Sempere & Sons and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. It also plunges the reader back into Zafón’s flamboyant style of storytelling with lots of dark and shadowy nights shrouded in mist.

The novel is the classic “make a deal with the devil” tale where the protagonist, David Martín, accepts an offer from a mysterious publisher to write a book that will present the world with a new religion. In doing so, Martín regains his health and earns an incredible amount of money. Soon, however, Martín discovers that he is not the first person to undertake this offer, and like his most recent predecessor, he fears he is losing his mind to the endeavor.

The Angel’s Game isn’t deeply theological or highly intellectual.  At its heart, it’s just great storytelling. Anyone remotely familiar with the Bible will recognize the references to the angel of light (one of the Adversary’s favorite ways to deceive mankind), the 6.66 pages a day our protagonist must write to achieve his goal (does that one even need explaining?), and the character Andreas Corelli (the name Old Nick chose to use for this sojourn among men) saying he’d been kicked out of his father’s house after a disagreement (which stands to reason when one challenges God for supremacy).

However, there are some questions that arose for me while reading. One of the thoughts on my mind was whether Zafón had written himself and/or his own wishes into the story. Is he speaking through Martín when the protagonist comments on how writers sell their soul for the dream of publication? Is Zafón, a writer of successful pulp fiction like Martín, consumed with the same desire his character is to write something he believes to be more worthy? And when a peripheral character tells Martín he has seen the angel brooch Andreas Corelli wears on Martín’s own lapel, is Zafón intimating that the demons writers struggle with come from within?

Another theme that Zafón floated was God as both good and evil, two halves of the same coin. I found this reinforced at the end of the book when Andreas Corelli, usually dressed in black, appears in white and offers Martín a blessing and a curse neatly packaged as one gift. But Zafón will have to forgive me if I feel no sympathy for the devil when he says, “…for once you will walk in my shoes and will feel what I feel.” Nor do I trouble myself believing the devil would ever admit he’s wrong such as Corelli did.

All this led to my second thought in which I speculated that Zafón was either a disgruntled former member of a particular belief system or he had written under the impression of said belief system. Or maybe he chucked religion all together and just created an intricately woven story sure to keep the reader up all night. Whatever the case me be, The Angel’s Game is a good story. The slightly far-fetched portions are barely noticeable when the book is taken as a whole, there is a slump in pacing near the end of the book, and the ending isn’t quite as satisfying as The Shadow of the Wind, but none of these factors are enough to keep me from pressing on with the series.

After the War by Alice Adams

After the War by Alice Adams is one of those rare books that defy the bad sequel status.  Ms. Adams seamlessly returns to the town of Pinehill and its colorful residents, all the gossip and speculation clashing with reality, fantasies fueled by emotional inner dialog, secret affairs of which everyone is aware, conversations attributed to no one in particular such as one would overhear at social functions, and she serves it up deliciously as if the reader is a neighbor with privileged insight into everyone’s private and public lives.

Ms. Adams addresses a new round of social and political issues through the different characters’ points of view, often having them use words deemed unacceptable in today’s society if not during the era in which the story takes place.  By doing so, she challenges her readers to reflect upon private thoughts and experiences, examine one’s upbringing and prejudices, and form an opinion.

As always, Ms. Adams’s prose is excellent, and she brilliantly breaks the rules of writing when she upsets the delicate balance of life in Pinehill with the unexpected death of a major character one third of the way into the story, draws the most peripheral of characters onto center stage, and begins or picks up storylines late in the novel only to conclude them with a satisfying ending.

After the War is masterful storytelling from a gifted writer gone too soon.

The Durrells in Corfu

My mother loves all things PBS and Masterpiece Theater, so when she mentioned a new series she was watching I listened politely, nodded, and didn’t watch it.  I’m more of the reading type, but every now and then I enjoy a good television show or movie.  Those seem to be few and far between.  Downton Abbey is no more, and while waiting for Poldark to return, I tried a couple of American TV shows I used to follow.  I believe I’ve outgrown them.

What was that series my mother mentioned?  Oh, yes:  The Durrells in Corfu.  She pronounced the family’s name in such a way as to rhyme with Purell, the hand sanitizer.  Turns out it was pronounced more like the word rural if you switched out the R for a D.  I requested the Season One from the library and couldn’t wait to be entertained by what Mother described as a charming series set on a Greek island.  She made it sound romantic and beautiful.

My husband and I watched the first episode, and while it wasn’t depressing, it wasn’t the delightful whirlwind adventure of picking up and moving to a Greek island that we thought it would be.  Widowed mother of four, Louisa Durrell, was at her wits end trying to make ends meet on her widow’s pension.  The idea to move to Corfu came from her oldest son, Larry, an estate agent who wants to be a writer but never writes.

Second son, Leslie, decided he’s going to quit school and find a job to help make ends meet.  Margot, his sister, announced that she, too, will quit school because she’s not that bright to begin with and school really wasn’t doing her any good.  Then there’s Jerry, the youngest son who loved anything to do with the animal kingdom and was rather odd.  This family was what one would describe as a hot mess.  In fact, by the third episode, husband and I looked at each other and wondered why we were still watching.

The Durrells were downright horrible to each other sometimes, especially Larry who delivered the harshest barbs to his mother and siblings. When they arrived in Corfu from England, they displayed the attitude of foreigners who couldn’t quite let go of their own culture to make the effort to fit in.  Throughout the first season, the worst character for this was the boorish Leslie who blathered on at the locals insisting they speak English even though it’s their country.  It was rather refreshing to know that Americans aren’t the only ones to do this even though we seem to be the only ones catching flack for it.

Larry finally took up writing, but this meant he wasn’t bringing in any money to help his mother.  In fact, none of the three eldest Durrells lifted a finger to help Louisa.  Leslie and Margot have clearly abandoned school, but they made no move to gets jobs.  I couldn’t feel bad for Louisa because she enabled them to be the slugs they were by constantly coddling them.  I turned my attention to weird little Jerry who also wasn’t attending school but provided himself the most amazing hands-on education by exploring the island for wildlife and building a personal zoo.

Still, I couldn’t quite connect with any of the Durrells.  It was time to focus on the peripheral characters.  I started with Lugaretzia, the Durrell’s housekeeper and cook who mumbled Greek to herself in such a way that even though one had no idea what she said understood that she, too, thought the Durrells were twits.  She took a liking to Leslie, who she declared the best son when he decided to learn Greek just so he could communicate with his girlfriend.

Then there was Theo Stephanides, the naturalist who assisted young Jerry in his pursuit of all things animal.  One couldn’t help but fall for the soft-spoken man as he guided Jerry through his makeshift education especially when he acted the part of a priest and presided over a bat funeral.  He and Jerry dug up the bat later so they could stuff it, but at least Jerry had a solid and intelligent father figure in his life.

Spiros Halikiopoulos was also a major favorite.  He was the type of person who believed he knew everything, yet he didn’t come across as arrogant because he actually did know everything.  The handsome taxi driver was always getting the Durrells out of scrapes and attempting to teach them how to be more Greek.  It was obvious he was sweet on Louisa, but he held back and was most gentlemanly toward her making him all the more desirable.

Another interesting peripheral character was Sven, the accordion-playing Swedish farmer.  Of the three men, he was the one Louisa fell for.  There’s a spoiler alert with Sven and Louisa’s story, so I’ll leave it up to my followers to either watch the series and/or discover what that was.  Sven was odd but likeable, handsome but practical.  He was a man of few words, and while he could be easily offended, he also forgave quickly to maintain the friendship.

Leslie Caron made a delightful cameo as the Countess Mavrodaki in the first season, and Jeremy Swift, who portrayed the unpleasant butler, Spratt, in Downtown Abbey, played her manservant, Dennis.  But with all these great peripheral characters, what about the Durrells?  It was, after all, their show.  My husband and I finished watching Season One and not for lack of something better to do.  We laughed several times over a couple of lines that were absolutely brilliant.  Kudos to the writers.

Still, what was it about the Durrells that kept us coming back?  In short, they were so true to real life, and we couldn’t wait to discover how things turned out for them.  We were actually quite pleased that the series didn’t end up being a piece of fluff.  We agreed that Leslie was our least favorite, that even though Margot was dim her family should probably stop telling her so, Larry was an ass (there’s no other way around it), and Jerry needed a bath in the worst way.  Yet when Season Two started last week, we were right there watching the Durrells stumble their way through life and learning the hard lessons.

Genius Indeed

Anyone who knows me knows that I read more than I watch movies.  It’s not that I have anything against movies, there are some excellent ones out there, but I love the place reading takes me.  A little prose to tantalize the senses, characters with whom I can relate or debate, description that draws me in:  I lose myself in the writing to the exclusion of everything around me.  But when a fellow book-snob recommends a movie, I seriously consider watching it.  Such was the case with Genius starring Colin Firth, Jude Law, Laura Linney, and Nicole Kidman.  The movie chronicles Scribner’s editor, Max Perkins, as he oversees the careers of Thomas Wolfe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway with the emphasis on Wolfe.

The first three actors immediately caught my attention because they are among my favorites.  Turns out Nicole Kidman portrayed Aline Bernstein, Thomas Wolfe’s unofficial patron and jilted lover, with an incredible amount of skill.  She’s matured quite nicely as an actress beyond being a pretty foil for Tom Cruise’s macho-man roles.  When she asks Jude Law as Thomas Wolfe if he knows how hard she’s worked to look at him and feel nothing, her strength radiates from the screen.

As for Laura Linney, who never fails to please, I thought she was underused in this film in her role of Max Perkins’s wife, Louise.  Her character was strong when she stood up to her husband, demanding he spend more time with his five daughters and less with his author, Thomas Wolfe, but she seemed a titch on the peripheral.  I understand the movie focused on the relationship between Perkins and Wolfe, but why waste Linney’s talent on one impassioned plea and nothing more?

Colin Firth as Max Perkins appealed to me as a writer.  Firth’s portrayal was solid, marching steadily on as an editor, drawing lines with his red pencil through a writer’s work with the precision of a scalpel.  I thrilled and cringed all at once watching those scenes.  But the one that delighted me the most was when Firth/Perkins sat on a train reading Wolfe’s manuscript that would become Look Homeward, Angel and realized it was worthy of publication.  Again, I was drawn into the movie by Firth’s slight smile, drawn into his head to the point I could see the wheels turning because he knew he’d hit upon literary genius.  Ah, to be a writer in those days when the relationship between editor and author meant hashing out the chapters line by line while secluded in an office.

The first thing about the movie that caught my attention was the cinematography in the opening scenes depicting the 1920s.  Usually pictures or films from this era are shades of gray or sepia.  Such was the case with the movie until it slowly faded to color past the opening credits.  Only the coloring didn’t change all that much because the streets of 1920s New York were rather gray and brown anyhow.

Now think beyond the splash of color implied by jazz and flappers and you’ll realize this was a great technique to employ in a movie about writers.  You’ll see it throughout the movie from Max Perkins’s cigarette smoke-clouded office slanted with rays of sunshine, to Perkins’s white home against a plain background, to scenes of men in breadlines during the Depression.  This may sound rather boring, but I believe it was a skillful attempt to capture black words on a white page, i.e. writing.  In fact, the whole movie was so brilliantly black and white, that I must give high praise to whoever thought of transitioning the written word to the viewed image in such a way.

Make no mistake, however; the movie was anything but colorless.  Jude Law as the larger-than-life Thomas Wolfe was so over the top with his portrayal.  Clearly Wolfe was a genius, but I flinched every time he opened his mouth, romping around scenes like a Great Dane puppy, and baying his slightly crazy, writerly musings.  I could see why Wolfe needed reigning in and taming by Max Perkins.  Law was at his most unsophisticated, un-Jude-like self; I forgot that he was acting and not truly Thomas Wolfe.

Guy Pearce as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Dominic West as Ernest Hemingway provide two nice cameos of the authors.  More exciting was the camera panning what looked to be first edition novels by said authors on the shelves in Max Perkins’s office.  Even if they weren’t, I’m sure I wasn’t the only writer salivating at the dream of getting my hands on a first edition of any of their works.

One small sidebar to the Perkins/Wolfe drama was the tiny restoration of my faith toward F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with F. Scott and banged him up pretty bad on my blog.  (F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Short Stories, Dear Scott, Sincerely HL, Under the Influence).  The viewer is given a small glimpse of F. Scott as the tender caretaker of his mad wife, Zelda.  For me, this persona never came out in Fitzgerald’s writing.  To see him as something other than the money-grubbing, mad-for-fame author in pursuit of the “top girl” was refreshing.

I’ll not spoil the ending of the movie as it delivers more emotionally impactive word-to-image scenes, but I’ll close by saying it was the best movie I ever read.

The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers

Have you ever read a book so good that you wanted to rush through it because you couldn’t wait to see how it ended only to stop the last three to five pages before the end because you suspected that it was about to finish on a heartbreaking, bittersweet note?  I have a feeling The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers is going to haunt me for some time, but that’s all right because while I’ve read many good books lately, it’s been a while since I had one that stayed with me as this book did.

I suppose the reason this book affected me is that I couldn’t help looking at it from the romantic’s perspective.  The story is quite surreal, not fantasy and not science fiction, but written in such a way that I could completely suspend belief about what took place to the point that the story totally engrossed me.  Not to mention that Thomas Mullen is a natural born storyteller.

Mr. Mullen seamlessly weaves history from the Great Depression and the 1920s and ‘30s into his novel.  He also intersperses the stories with mention of famous gangsters like Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barker Gang.  One can’t help getting caught up in daring bank robberies, wild police chases, the brokenness of the Hoovervilles, and the tenacity of the G-Men.

But then Mr. Mullen blurs the lines ever so slightly when these gangsters, along with his own fictional Firefly Brothers, earn legions of fans across the country for sticking it to the banks that foreclosed on property of poor, struggling farmers.  True, their craft was an art, but they were also murderers living high on the hog whose charity extended to them first and their families second.  Past that, most of what they did was pure myth.

So how does one separate fact from fiction, truth from lies, and good from evil when the intimidating fingers of governmental control was more than implied in this somewhat prophetic tale?  Factor in the development of what became the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover, and it was like I read headlines from today regarding the American government and the NSA.  Perhaps we really are doomed to repeat history when we forget it.

And if you think I’m exaggerating the prophetic nature of the story, consider the following passage:

Part of the Bureau’s job, the Director had always explained, was to dictate reality—to investigate reality, fully understand it, and then, under the aegis of Mr. Hoover’s vigilant public persona, explain that reality to a public cowed by the depression and frightened by stories of gangsters and increasing lawlessness.  It was the Bureau’s job to reassure people that these shockingly hard times were merely speed bumps along the shared path to prosperity, and not a sign that the nation was spiraling into anarchy and madness.

I believe today we call that fake news.  What struck me about this passage was that even if J. Edgar Hoover never said these exact words or acted this way, even in 2010 when the novel was published, Mr. Mullen had understanding of where America was headed.  No doubt based on where we had already been.

At first I thought the novel promoted a lack of hope and something to believe in, but with further reading, I realized it toggled between this and hoping against hope to believe in the impossible as a means of survival.  Such amazing insight into the human condition and an unexpected source of inspiration from a novel is rare.  Another pleasant surprise was the concept of forgiveness, for others and for self, subtly entwined into the tale.

Long before I finished reading, I realized I was experiencing what I could only call a Literary Stockholm Syndrome in which I wanted the bad guys to succeed in their struggle against failure (whether real or perceived), to reconnect with their true loves, and escape.  I mentally pleaded with them to find their women and just disappear.  Nothing they were doing would actually work in the end, it was no longer about seeking justice, and they would most likely end up dead.

I’ve mentioned before how I wished an author would have finished a novel on a clearer, more positive note or would consider writing a sequel to undo the heartbreak and let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a happy ending took place (Is It Ever Too Late?).  I mulled these thoughts over again at the end of The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers.  Until Thomas Mullen tells me otherwise, I’ll wish for the impossible and believe in a favorable outcome.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

I recently read Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt.  If you follow me on Goodreads and you’ve read the book, you might think I’m rather rigid in my assessment of the memoir.  I’ve read other fiction and non-fiction accounts of the Great Depression in America as well as extremely poor people in Ireland, Appalachia, and other such places, and I must say that for a Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Angela’s Ashes did not strike me as exceptional in any way.

I’m not sure why the book is titled as it is when the story is predominantly about McCourt’s experiences as a child.  His parents’ courtship and marriage prior to his arrival was necessary to set the stage for what the entire family would endure due to his father’s alcoholism and eventual abandonment, but again, the bulk of what one reads focuses on young Frank.

The prose is pleasant (riddled with Irish slang, sayings, and swear words galore), but nothing poetic or beautifully descriptive.  Sometimes dialog is properly placed between quotes and employs commas, periods, or question marks where necessary, and other times it’s buried in long paragraphs of run-on sentences.

One saving grace from all the depressing tales McCourt relays is the hilarity of the situations he’s writing about.  The thing is, the humor is derived from circumstances that are simultaneously horrific.  Yet the reader has to laugh because the truth is almost unbelievable.  Sadly, some of these dreadful circumstances include the way adults in the story treat McCourt, his siblings, and friends.

It’s unacceptable when adults express the depth of frustration, prejudice, and ignorance-born hatred toward each other that McCourt conveys, but children should never have to suffer at this level.  Educators, employers, priests, nuns, relatives, and hospital administration inflict verbal and physical damage on par with child abuse.  It’s a wonder any child living in these conditions turned out normal.

Near the end of the book, Angela McCourt finally takes the self-sacrificing initiative to do something for her children’s welfare.  Prior to that she tolerates her alcoholic husband’s actions to the extreme detriment of her family by keeping her abuser front and center in her life.  Perhaps it was the era in which the story takes place, perhaps it’s that divorce still carried the stigma of shame back then, perhaps it’s that Angela suffered from some type of battered-woman syndrome (hers being in the form of neglect beyond all reason), but because she refused to rid their lives of her worthless husband’s presence, they underwent shame to an equal degree anyhow.

There comes a point in the book when, in my opinion, McCourt rushes through years thirteen to nineteen because to tell it in any more detail would read as more of the same depressing ground already covered over and over and over.  Things turn around for young Frank ever so slightly; he hops a boat to America, end of story.

I’d like to say that Angela’s Ashes is one of those books that just shouldn’t be missed, but I can’t.  I’m not sorry I read it, but if asked whether or not it is a worthy read, I’ll probably shrug my shoulders, suggest the reader try it, and make up his or her own mind.

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