Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee AND I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee



Rating: 4 Stars each


Given that these two are essentially the same book, I am posting them as one review. I read the YA version, I Am Scout, first. I was just interested to see how the author would write for each audience, what material would be included, and what would be left out.

Anyone who knows me knows that To Kill a Mockingbird is among one of my favorite books of all time. One might even know the story of how I first discovered this incredibly powerful novel - totally by accident. I was spending a lazy afternoon at my grandma and grandpa's house, some time during my 6th grade year. I loved hanging out in the basement, where my youngest uncle had a kind of office area for himself - a giant desk, surrounded by bookshelves crammed with records, cds, and books. I found a worn paperback with a mustard yellow cover, the title standing out in bright, bold red. I settled into my uncle's comfy chair and read To Kill a Mockingbird straight through, within just a couple of hours. At one point my poor grandma nearly had a heart attack when she called down the stairs to ask what I was doing and I told her I had found a book I really liked. Grandma was sure that my mom would be upset that I had read it, given my age and some of the more sensitive aspects of the book.

After reading TKAM, I looked for other books by the author and was greatly disappointed to find she had never written anything else. I made it a mission to find out everything I could about her then, my new idol, but sadly here was not a lot of information to be had and eventually I grew up - though never losing the idea of Ms. Nelle Harper Lee as being the ideal, the author I most wanted to emulate. It gave me hope that she could go three decades of her life writing and writing and writing, but not be published until her early thirties. I might still have a chance to be a published myself, though I know I could never hope to write a novel on par with To Kill a Mockingbird; that in itself is beyond anything most people could ever even dream of.

But on to the books themselves...

Most people seem to have complained about the lack of access to the title subject herself, and how the book was basically about everyone who ever knew her or had some insight into Lee's life. I'm curious in what other way a biography might be written, when there is no access to the person who the book is about. Biographies are written all the time about Washington and Lincoln, but no one is complaining about lack of access to the former presidents. While I realize of course that Ms. Lee is still alive, she is simply not accessible and the author worked well with the material he had in order to create a portrait of her that would be as thorough as possible.

The books naturally had some major differences, given their intended audiences were different. The adult version had a much more detailed description of Ms. Lee's life in NY right off the bat, something altogether left out of the YA version. I am not sure of the purpose for anything but length. In fact, it seemed that the majority of the information left out of the YA version was simply due to length, and not because anything but be unsuitable for younger readers or something might be difficult for a younger audience to understand. The one exception to this to this may be all the information about the Clutter family - the family murdered in Kansas who were the subject of Truman Capote's book In Cold Blood. There were far more facts and insight into the family, and much of what was touched on might have been difficult for younger readers to comprehend.

Speaking of Truman - thanks to these books, I can safely say I will never read any work of his, ever. I can not imagine a more pompous, arrogant, manipulative, whiny little jerk. It baffles me that Ms. Lee was able to tolerate him for so long, despite his repeated jabs and attempts at sabotaging their friendship. Ranging from never really going out of his way o deny the rumors that he wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, to not giving Nelle any credit whatsoever for the long hours of work she put into his book, I can't imagine how she put up with him. He would have done well to remember and recognize that without Nelle, he would have had no book, period. Had it not been for her, her notes, and her ability to speak and connect to people in a way Truman never could, I highly doubt that In Cold Blood would have been half the book it turned out to be.

I found the information relating to the film highly interesting. To imagine Gregory Peck dressed as a person in need and sneaking into town to avoid causing an uproar does cause a chuckle. I was disappointed to learn though that he was the driving force behind a lot of the changes made to the film. To me, the story is fully about Scout and Jem and how they viewed the world around them as these great changes were taking place. The movie became more about Atticus, which never seemed right to me. I must say though, Peck is the only person who really could have played Atticus Finch. He IS Atticus. I could never even picture Spencer Tracy in that role, or anyone else Nelle or the studio had in mind.

All in all, the books were informative and written well in a way that were easy reads and easy to follow. I would certainly recommend Mockingbird to anyone interested in this fascinating and talented writer, and I Am Scout would be a great addition to a class or school library.

Forgive me that this review is not my usual in-depth fare. I am still sick and not on my game 100% but wanted to get something new posted. Thank you!

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