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Posts Tagged ‘Harper Lee’

My Harper Lee SparkNotes

February 22, 2016 | by

Writing the SparkNotes for Go Set a Watchman. 

From the cover of Go Set a Watchman.


Context

The summer when I was eight, I read two books: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and To Kill a Mockingbird. My copy of Mockingbird was a cheap lilac paperback. Its cover featured the knot of a tree with a pocket watch and a ball of yarn inside, a mockingbird stamped in silhouette. In the corner, a crescent moon as thin as a tea-stain rose above a clot of green trees.

I lived inside that book. I read it, reread it, and reread it again, sitting in an attic bedroom of my grandparents’ house, hunched on the green shag carpet. I remember the book in discrete images: Dill’s duckweed-like tufts of hair. Slimy Mr. Ewell leering at his daughter. Miss Maudie’s house going up in flames, like a pumpkin, and her prized azaleas frozen and charred in the aftermath. Crotchety, liver-spotted Mrs. Dubose with her perfect camellias, ivory and globular against the glossy leaves. The day when Jem, in a sudden rampage, snatches Scout’s baton and shears off all the buds and flowers on the camellia bushes. And then, when Mrs. Dubose dies, the white box that her servant gives to Jem with one pristine, waxy camellia resting inside. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me how to create a fully realized, sensory world. Read More »

Remember to Authenticate Your Falcon, and Other News

February 22, 2016 | by

Humphrey Bogart with the elusive (and presumably genuine) Maltese Falcon.

  • Zadie Smith is thinking about The Polar Express 4–D Experience and Anomalisa and, of course, Schopenhauer: “One way of dealing with the boredom of our own needs might be to complicate them unnecessarily, so as always to have something new to desire. Human needs, Schopenhauer thought, are not in their essence complex. On the contrary, their ‘basis is very narrow: it consists of health, food, protection from heat and cold, and sexual gratification; or the lack of these things.’ Yet on this narrow strip we build the extraordinary edifice of pleasure and pain, of hope and disappointment! Not just salmon, but wild-caught Copper River Alaskan salmon almandine! And all to achieve exactly the same result in the end; health, food, covering, and so on … ”
  • Today in late authors and real-estate envy: turns out Harper Lee had a place on the Upper East Side all these years, and she paid less than a thousand bucks a month for it. Early in the morning, you could spot her not at Starbucks but at the local butcher’s: “She was a regular at Ottomanelli Bros. butcher shop on York Avenue, visiting twice a day, first at 7:30 A.M. for a cup of black coffee and a raisin scone, said co-owner Nicolas ‘Uncle Nic’ Ottomanelli. She would go back in the late afternoon for a chicken, a lamb chop ‘trimmed real neat’ or the first cut of Delmonico steak.”
  • Advice for biographers—if you want to earn the respect of your subject’s forebears, hide the dirty laundry. Henry James’s first biographer, Leon Edel, won the trust of the James estate in part because of his suspicious willingness to conceal aspects of the author’s sexuality: “Slowly, Edel became a trusted servant of the James estate as well as James’s biographer. He informed the family when a scholar he met at a conference expressed an interest in James’s homoerotic correspondence. He was assured by the Houghton Library that ‘she is certainly not going to see anything she’s not supposed to see.’ Edel’s job was to keep all insinuations about James’s sexuality at bay … Since Edel knew he would have to deal with James’s sexuality in his later volumes, he hoped that some other writer would spill the beans first so that it would, as he wrote, ‘relieve me of the onus of “breaking” the story.’ ”
  • Advice for crime writers—put girl in your book’s title, make a little money. “I have talked to other crime writers that have been urged by various professional people in their life to put the world girl in their title,” Megan Abbott told NPR. “It’s not necessarily an issue with the content of the book itself, but there’s this sort of shorthand that if it has girl in the title, then I know what to expect.”
  • Advice for movie-memorabilia collectors—if you’re going to shell out $4.1 million for the black statuette from The Maltese Falcon, make sure it’s the genuine article first. Ask Hank Risan, who owns two of them and has gone to great lengths to discover their provenance: “Mysteriously, there was an identical marking near the base on each of Risan’s Falcons. It appeared to be two numbers: a 7 with a crossbar and a 5, each followed by a period. Could it be a ‘7.5.,’ referring to the 1975 film? … Risan managed to make an appointment with Edward Baer, an assistant manager in the property department, who had been at the studio for thirty-seven years ... When they showed him one of Risan’s Falcons, Baer said it was nothing like those he had designed. Baer explained that he had made the 1975 Falcons from the original 1941 mold, which he had fished out of a Warner Bros. warehouse. But the mold had deteriorated, so after using it to make a single replica out of resin, he destroyed the mold, then used the resin Falcon to make a new mold. The replicas made from this mold were scrunched forward and a little lopsided—sad cousins of the original.”

No Name Is Safe

August 4, 2015 | by

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Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird.

It has been a bad summer for the iconic characters of Southern literature. A couple of weeks ago, a New Hampshire man named Huckleberry Finn was accused of rape. This was surely not what his parents had in mind when they named him.

When the world learned that Atticus Finch had aged into a crotchety reactionary with KKK sympathies, we thought of the children. Not just those thousands schlepping their mauve trade summer-reading paperbacks all over the country. But those named after what we believed was literature’s best dad; Atticus was the #1 boy’s baby name in 2015. As one baby-name Web site puts it, “Atticus, with its trendy Roman feel combined with the upstanding, noble image of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, is a real winner.” As the  New York Times put it, “Fans of Mockingbird have been crestfallen and disbelieving that their hero could be so changed, but perhaps no group more so than those who chose that name for their children.” Read More »

Sherlock Holmes Defends Civil Engineering, and Other News

February 20, 2015 | by

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An illustration of Sherlock Holmes from The Strand, 1920s.

  • In Selkirk, Scotland, a man has found a previously unseen Sherlock Holmes story in his attic. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently wrote it around 1904 to help raise funds for a new bridge. “It is believed the story—about Holmes deducing Watson is going on a trip to Selkirk—is the first unseen Holmes story by Doyle since the last was published over eighty years ago.”
  • Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so beloved? Probably just because everyone was forced to read it growing up—in reality, it’s a “white-trash gothic” that infantilizes blacks and demonizes poor whites: “The central struggle in To Kill a Mockingbird involves class, not race. The book’s theme is the class war within the white South between the noble gentry and the depraved poor. In a clever twist, thanks to the community’s racism the white underclass villain wins in court, but the gentry hero enjoys revenge at the end, thanks to a killing that is covered up by the local sheriff.”
  • While we’re at it, we’ve made a mess of Huck Finn, too: “We persistently misread Twain’s messages on race and children for a simple reason: Americans still subscribe to many of the same myths and prejudices as their nineteenth-century ancestors. Twain’s novel is not a hymn to the carefree pleasures of a rustic childhood; it’s a barbed critique of precisely the sort of standardized education that has now led to the book’s adoption in countless classrooms … Common readings of the book are now trapped in the same sanctimonious clichés that Twain both punctured and perpetuated.”
  • How quickly is our spoken language changing, and how many of those changes should be reflected in print? “There is a natural problem, found the world over: how quickly to allow writing to adapt to changes in the spoken language? If spelling were adapted to pronunciation, the result would be a radical and destabilizing break with centuries of tradition … English-speakers are stuck with an archaic and anarchic system. Liberties with grammar—making the written language look like the spoken one—should be few and cautious. Giving the written language a little room to change, but not too much, is the only way to enjoy the best of both stability and vitality.”
  • Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers David Carr, who was his boss at the Washington City Paper: “David—recovering crack addict, recovering alcoholic, ex-cocaine dealer, lymphoma survivor, beautiful writer, gorgeous human—knew something about how a life of fucking up burrows itself into the bones of knuckleheads, and it changes there, transmutes into an abiding shame, a gnawing fear which likely dogs the reformed knucklehead right into the grave. Perhaps that fear could be turned into something beautiful. Perhaps a young journalist could pull power from that fear, could write from it … ”

Hot Stove

February 9, 2015 | by

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A young Harper Lee, her thoughts no doubt consumed by the New York Mets.

Harper Lee fever has gripped the nation. Ever since news of her lost novel hit last week, the famously reclusive writer has been everywhere—trending on Twitter, spawning lists, smiling above the fold on the front page of today’s New York Times. Naturally, there’s been as much controversy as delight: Is the elderly author being taken advantage of? Does she want the book released? According to her lawyer, the author is humiliated by such allegations. 

Whatever you think about the release of the novel, the whole thing has started to feel a bit squicky, or at the very least odd. All of this has so little to do with the woman herself. Or so I declared self-righteously to my head over the weekend, when I resolved to take an attitude of superior distaste towards the whole business. When I saw a feature on Harper Lee’s New York in the New York Post, my lip curled. Until, that is, I glanced at the annotated map and saw that it listed—along with the Yorkville flat where Lee lived off and on for decades, Capote’s Brooklyn Heights home, and the offices of agent Maurice Crain—the old Shea Stadium. Read More »

Pork Products in the Work of Harper Lee

March 7, 2014 | by

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Detail from George Morland’s Vor dem Schweinestall, 1793.

Yesterday, the estimable Margaret Eby sent me something she had run across in The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook, a 1961 oddity fiercely beloved by culinary bibliophiles. This book—which featured an introduction by Alice B. Toklas and illustrations by Marcel Duchamp—is a treasure trove of literary arcana, containing as it does entries from contributors as wide-ranging as Man Ray, George Sand, and John Keats. (Maria Popova did a terrific post on TAAWC, if you want to see more.)

One of the more contemporary offerings, and that which Margaret passed along, is Harper Lee’s recipe for cracklin’ cornbread. It reads as follows: Read More »