“I am Scout” review

I am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee
by Charles J. Shields

Patricia‘s review

Dec 26, 2012
Really liked it
 To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the most widely read novels in America, and one of the most frequently assigned in high school English classes. It is also one of the best loved.

The tomboy Scout and attorney/father Atticus are two of the most vivid characters in US literature.

Surprisingly, author Harper Lee never completed another novel, although she probably contributed at least half of the research and writing of Truman Capote’s masterpiece, In Cold Blood.

Two books by Charles J. Shields explore why Lee never produced another work of fiction, why she dressed and acted the way she did, how the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird lived up to her expectations, and how true to life her story was.

In Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee, Charles J. Shields explored Nelle Harper Lee’s childhood and how it shaped her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. He also told of Nelle’s friendship with neighbor Truman Capote, her days at the University of Alabama, and her years as a struggling writer in New York City.

I Am Scout is Shields’ adaptation of Mockingbird for a younger audience, and like the former, pieces together hundreds of interviews with Lee’s neighbors, friends and schoolmates, along with archival information. The books succeed in capturing the mysterious Nelle Harper Lee, an unconventional child, student and woman with a very private life in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

The book opens in the middle of a brawl between a seven-year-old Nelle and the older boys bullying her next door neighbor, Truman Streckfus Persons, in the Monroe County Elementary School playground. As always, Nelle triumphed, and Truman, her scrawny friend, was spared from the consequences of his provoking behavior. Every bit as fearsome as her future character Scout, Nelle, whose name was Ellen spelled backward, was considered a bully and a know-it-all by her contemporaries.

Like the girl in the novel and the film, she wore boy’s overalls and pants, and loved to write. Her attorney father, Amasa Coleman Lee, was the inspiration for Atticus, and after having worked as a bookkeeper and financial manager, Lee “read for the law,” a sort of homeschooling monitored by attorneys, and passed the bar in 1915. Since Monroeville was the county seat, plenty of legal cases came his way, and he was able to provide an upper middle class home for his wife and children.

Nelle’s mother was not deceased, as was the case for Scout in the novel. Known to be a brilliant woman, Mrs. Lee was a gifted classical pianist and kept a clean, simple house. The Lees employed black housekeepers, sometimes two at a time, who cooked, cleaned and looked after the children. One, Hattie Clausell, lived with the Lees for many years, and may have been the person Harper Lee was recalling when creating Calpurnia. Her round the clock presence in TKAM was true-to life, Shields says.

Despite the ever-present help with household chores, Mrs. Lee was not a happy person, and her husband worried about her mental state. She suffered from depression and severe mood swings, and was unpredictable. She had no social or cultural life, and would play her piano for hours, and gradually became housebound, because she could not be trusted to go to town alone.

Truman idolized Mr. Lee, who presented him with a pocket dictionary he prized for years. However, he satirized Nelle’s mother in a story he wrote in sixth grade, “Mrs. Busybody.” Years later, on a popular radio program, Truman Capote told the audience that Mrs. Lee tried to drown Nelle in the bathtub twice when she was two years old, and she was rescued by her older sisters. This may be why Scout recalls that her mother died when she was two, “so I never felt her absence.”

Truman and Nelle were five years old when they began playing together. “Beautiful things floated around in his dreamy head,” she wrote of him, when he became Dill, the boy next door in TKAM. He was dressed in fanciful clothing from expensive stores, in a school where children wore patched hand-me-downs. It was the 1930s, the Great Depression, after all. He had the misfortune of having the worst thing that could possibly happen to a child happen to him: his parents didn’t care about him, and they didn’t care if he knew.

His parents were beautiful people who loved the high life, and he was given to his maiden aunts and bachelor uncle, all middle-aged or elderly, to raise. The female Huckleberry Finn and the sissy were an odd couple, but the two friends were inseparable, and Nelle was Truman’s steadfast protector.

Ultimately the story of Lee’s childhood and relationship with Capote is a fascinating one. It is well worth the read for youths enraptured by her solitary opus, who want to know more about Nelle Harper Lee, the woman who ensured that generations of high school students will never forget that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird.

“The Light Between Oceans” review

The Light Between Oceans
by M.L. Stedman (Goodreads Author)

Patricia‘s review – Jul 06, 2017

Really liked it
A well written historical novel set in Australia after WWI. A young father escapes a mob with his infant daughter, and their rowboat washes up on an island and is found by a lighthouse keeper. The man in the boat is dead, but the infant is not, and the lighthouse keeper and his wife choose to keep the child as their own. The baby’s mother, nearly beside herself with grief, still hopes to find her husband and baby. By the time the truth is told, the bond between the child and the rescuing couple is firmly established, and her mother has become a stranger.

“Making Certain It Goes On” review

Making Certain It Goes On: The Collected Poems of Richard Hugo
by Richard Hugo, William Kittredge (Introduction)

Patricia‘s review – Apr 14, 2017

It was amazing
I first encountered Richard Hugo’s poetry when I was 16 at the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts at Bucknell U. Poetry teacher Peter Balakian read “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg”, and the lines have stuck in my head ever since. Something about that bleak reality and the unsparing rhythm.
Since then, I’ve referred many would-be poets to Hugo. This volume has a comprehensive collection of Hugo’s verse, as well as a biographical introduction that captures the poet’s disposition and chronicles his semitragic path.

“Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi” review

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi
by Geoff Dyer (Goodreads Author)

Patricia‘s review – Sep 24, 2012

It was amazing
Geoff Dyer begins his fictional travelogue of two diverse cities with a wry account of a jaded journalist’s experience of the Biennale in Venice, where every two years the international art world gathers for festivities. While preparing for his trip at home in London and trying to once again assume an interest in the Biennale, Jeff impulsively decides to dye his hair. The male hairdresser punnily quotes Sylvia Plath: “Dyeing is an art like everything else. We do it exceptionally well. We do it so it looks real.” Fortunately, he stops there, rather than continuing with the next line from “Lady Lazarus”: “I do it so it feels like hell.”

Revived by the transformation, and pleased with his hair’s natural look, Jeff realizes he had made little progress in the last decade and a half. Still, the rejuvenation puts a spring in his step and surprisingly allows him to catch the eye of the amazing Laura, a fellow visiting journalist with whom he rapidly progresses from romance to explicitly sexual, ecstatic encounters in Venice. Renewing his enjoyment of Venetian charms, including cafes, wine, cocaine and Titorettos, he misses his chance to plan another encounter with his new lover before its possibility becomes remote.

In the second part of the book, what may well be the same narrator agrees to an assignment, flying on short notice to the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, India. For the greater part of this narrative, he is alone among thousands of pilgrims who come to the holiest of Indian cities with great extremes in personal wealth vs. poverty, health vs. illness, life vs. death.

“Everything that happens in India is a parable, even if the parable is unclear…there is no such thing as a pyrrhic victory, there are only pyrrhic defeats.” He, like all of the other journalists his editor assigned to cover this city before him, becomes violently ill with some sort of wracking intestinal bug, doubtless due to the layering of feces, animals and dead humans on the ghats and promenades of the city. He watches the main tourist attraction, the ritual burning of the dead on floating funeral pyres, accompanied by floating candles and cows munching the wilted remains of flowers.

Dyer’s evocative prose, snips of philosophy and eye for the telling image/symbol are not for the squeamish or the prudish, but his observations while he finds and loses himself in two watery cities are vivid and genre-bending.

“Clementine” review

Clementine (Clementine, #1)
by Sara Pennypacker, Marla Frazee (Illustrator)

Patricia‘s review – Sep 20, 2012

It was amazing
  • Charming main character, a problematic, hilarious redhead who easily finds solutions to problems and wonders why she is always being accused of not paying attention when she is the only one aware of what’s really going on at school. Clementine spends a lot of time at the principal’s office. She would much rather be playing with her friend Margaret. Realistic parents and adults, an engaging chapter book for elementary readers (I couldn’t find a reading level anywhere, but I’m guessing grades 2-5).
    Marvelous illustrations by Marla Frazee, who has also illustrated others in the Clementine series.
    Here’s a snippet:
    This year I am in the gifted class for math. And here is the bad surprise–so far no gifts. I told Principal Rice about that problem when she got back from calming down Margaret’s mother.
    “So far no gifts,” I told her, extremely politely.
    Principal Rice rolled her eyes to the ceiling then, like she was looking for something up there. Ceiling snakes maybe, just waiting to drip on you…
    “Clementine, you need to pay attention,” said Principal Rice. “We need to discuss Margaret’s hair. What are you doing on the floor?”
    “Helping you look for ceiling snakes,” I reminded her.
    “Ceiling snakes? What ceiling snakes?” she asked.
    See what I mean? Me–paying attention; everybody else–not. I am amazed they let someone with this problem be the boss of a school.SERIES:
    Clementine
    The Talented Clementine
    Clementine’s Letter
    Clementine, Friend of the Week
    Clementine and the Family Meeting
    Clementine and the Spring Trip

“A Stolen Life” review

A Stolen Life
by Jaycee Dugard

Patricia‘s review – Sep 14, 2012

Really liked it
Generally, I do not give a book four stars unless it has substantial literary merit, but this account of an abducted child who was imprisoned by her kidnapper for 18 years and gave birth to two daughters before escaping is so authentic, so honest, and so worthy that I cannot give less.
Jaycee Dugard begins her story on the day she was yanked into a stranger’s car and imprisoned in his back yard shed without clothing, food, or a bed to lie on. Her account is voiced by herself at that moment, and her perspective grows over the years of her confinement and abuse, limited as it was by her surroundings. She says that it is important to her that her abuser’s identity be revealed and not forgotten or excused or dismissed. A must read for any parent or social worker.

“The Dog Who Danced” review

The Dog Who Danced
by Susan Wilson (Goodreads Author)

Patricia‘s review – Sep 06, 2012

Really liked it
I am giving this a four star rating because I thought the characters and description and plot were first rate, and the dog as a character was better than first rate. It is a tale of Justine Meade, a woman who has seen better days and many losses, who is ditched at a truck stop by a trucker she has already paid to take her to her childhood home. The driver soon dumps off her dog, Mack, a blue merle shetland sheepdog with a talent for dancing. Her efforts to find her missing dog alternate with the helpful attempts of a couple who find Mack on the highway’s edge. No more, or I will spoil it. It’s a fun summer read.

“The Water is Wide”

The Water is Wide
by Pat Conroy

Patricia‘s review – Aug 19, 2012

Really liked it
I will be reviewing this later. Pat Conroy is probably best known for his novel, “The Prince of Tides.” This is a memoir, not fiction, although most of his novels are some sort of rehashing of his youth, resplendent with memories of his tragic, painful, values-filled adolescence as the eldest son of a Marine family, moving 24 times by the end of high school.
The Water is Wide is the story of Conroy’s job as a young man during the VietNam conflict, teaching at an island school that has a 100 percent African American population. The locals have lost their primary source of income when a factory contaminated the productive oyster beds, so with jobs scarce, they spend their time fishing and crabbing and hunting to get by. The 18 students have few clues about life on the mainland or even basic facts about their country.
Conroy, a born and bred white Southerner, sets out to make a difference. He is thwarted by the principal, the superintendent, the school board, and the state. He uses music, the news, and field trips to try to broaden the horizons of his pupils while attempting to reach some very basic literacy levels.
I am perplexed by the time frame for the memoir. It often says that he spent a little more than a year at the school, and yet he met Barbara, married her, and three daughters are born in the course of the narrative. That was confusing.
He chooses to commute to school by boat, which according to local wisdom is fraught with perils in the winter months.
Conroy is at his best when he is on a story-telling roll. His honesty about himself, his prejudices, and his earnest wish to make a difference in the lives of these children is engaging. In spite of that, and in spite of the mutual love that forms between the teacher and his pupils, he does not impress the powers that be, not even the teacher/principal in the next room.

“Chicken with Plums” review

Chicken with Plums
by Marjane Satrapi

Patricia‘s review – Aug 06, 2012

Really liked it

Marjane Satrapi stunned the world with her breakout literary/graphic memoir, Persepolis, which was printed in two parts: Persepolis: the Story of a Childhood, followed by Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return. The two-part memoir in graphic novel format told the story of her childhood in revolutionary Iran, and has now been published as The Complete Persepolis. This work was subsequently released as an animated feature film, Persepolis, which Satrapi co-wrote and co-directed. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2007.

Now Satrapi has produced the most intricate and highly crafted of her works, Chicken With Plums, which is the story of an Iranian musician and his decision to give up his life out of despair for both his shattered musical instrument and a lost love.

What makes this memoir/work of fiction so effective is Satrapi’s seamless use of time sequence, as well as her remarkable artistry. The twists of fate and ironies of life in Iran are not lost on the reader.

Satrapi’s graphics are even more compelling in this memoir, their inky, linoleum block effect rendering mood and fateful events capably. Her prose is spare, never stating anything when the image can speak for itself.

The storyline, which meanders purposefully through the life of the author’s great uncle, is very perceptive and revealing, showing his thought processes as he develops as a musician, falls in love, is rejected as a suitor because of his calling, makes a convenience marriage to a friend of the family and raises his children from an emotional distance, unaware that he is wrong about which child really loves him. His deliberate hunger strike to the point of death is broken up by visitors, visions of Sophia Loren and food fantasies, hence the title.

Readers who enjoyed Persepolis will appreciate Chicken with Plums. It is a quick and compelling read, visually stimulating and provides some interesting philosophical and moral twists.