A Mockingbird Sings? A Conversation with Marja Mills about her Controversial Memoir of Her Onetime Neighbor, Harper Lee

Author Profiles, Memoir No Comments »

marja_millsBy June Sawyers

In 2001, reporter Marja Mills met up with Harper Lee, or Nelle, as she is known, and her older sister Alice Lee, in Monroeville, Alabama, while on assignment for the Chicago Tribune after the Chicago Public Library had chosen Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” as its One Book, One Chicago selection. Mills went back and forth to Alabama—and in 2004, she even moved next door to the sisters—and struck up a friendship with the two women. The story of the unusual camaraderie is the topic of Mills’ fascinating, touching and, it must be said, respectful, memoir, “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee.” In the following email conversation, Mills recalls the first time she read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, as well as the recent controversy over Lee’s very public disavowal of the memoir.

Do you remember the first time you read “To Kill a Mockingbird”? And your reaction to it?
Yes. I was in the West High Library in Madison, Wisconsin. I felt as if I were in Maycomb, Alabama, walking those dusty, red clay roads. Harper Lee drew that world so vividly. It was transporting.

Can you say a bit more about how you were feeling when Alice Lee invited you into the house for the first time? You indicate you were surprised, thrilled and even a bit regretful. Is there anything else that you care to add? 
She was so gracious, and here I had made this petite woman with the walker and raspy voice get up and answer the door. I kept telling myself to remember every detail of every room, because I wouldn’t be there again. But she seemed to enjoy the conversation, as did I, and it became the first of many. Read the rest of this entry »

Crime Studies: The Story Behind Lori Rader-Day’s Campus-Set Debut, “The Black Hour”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Debut Novel or Collection, Mystery No Comments »

By Brandie Rae Madrid

First-time novelist and Chicago transplant Lori Rader-Day’s “The Black Hour” is set in a prestigious university in a fictional Chicago suburb. After an inexplicable attack by a student shooter, Professor Amelia Emmet returns to work, albeit with a cane, a new anxiety about her students, and a slew of faculty who think she must have brought the crime on herself somehow. Told from two perspectives—that of Emmet and her new teaching assistant Nathaniel—the novel explores the aftermath of a violent crime that is becoming all too common on campuses today.

You’re originally from Indiana? What brought you to Chicago?
I am. The central Indiana area just northwest of Indianapolis near a town call Lebanon. Lots of people pass by it and may not stop.

We came to Chicago in 2001. I had gotten a job, and I asked my boyfriend if he wanted to come up here with me, and he responded by asking to marry him. So my fiancé and I came to Chicago together, and we got married about two years later. So, a good job, but also just trying to find adventure.

Chicago and its history end up being a big part of this novel. Can you speak a little bit about that and how that came about?
I can’t say that I’m an expert in Chicago crime history, but I think it’s really interesting to live in a town with so much rich history of all kinds. And then Chicago has such interest in its own history that I just love, but it also has an interest in its own crime history. I was thinking about what would draw Nathaniel in the book to Chicago once he’s there—because he’s interested in what happened to Dr. Emmet. But I thought he would have this sort of dark interest in crime, and of course Chicago is a good place to study crime if you’re going to do it. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “If it is your life” by James Kelman

Book Reviews, Fiction, Story Collections No Comments »

RECOMMENDED ifitisyourlife

A few years back, The Guardian attempted to interview the Scottish Booker Prize winner James Kelman about his then-new novel “Kieron Smith, Boy.” The result was essentially an interrogative monologue by the interviewer, interspersed with Kelman’s “monosyllabic replies” and silences that were “long and Pinteresque.” Unfortunate for the interviewer, yes, but also no real surprise given Kelman’s writing, which dwells on the gaps between spoken words and the tangles of thought beneath them. As a character in his brilliant (if bleak) new collection “If it is your life” puts it, “Human beings are near the surface. Just scratch and that is us.”

Kelman’s work is all about this scratching, laying bare the inner lives of men and women in the margins as they have a pint or die alone or watch children build a raft to sail across a lake of detritus in the backcourt of a Glasgow tenement. His stories drop readers into the murky minds of working-class, often nameless, largely Glaswegian narrators who are plagued by intractable troubles that they cannot effectively convey to themselves or others. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Other Side” by Lacy M. Johnson

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RECOMMENDED theotherside

Lacy M. Johnson’s new memoir “The Other Side” tragically details her experience of getting kidnapped and raped by her former boyfriend. Nothing about this is necessarily strange—Johnson isn’t the first to write a memoir in order to render a personal trauma. What is strange about “The Other Side” is that despite its difficult subject matter, it is pleasurable to read. Johnson isn’t a victim of a crime who has become a writer in order to work through the physiological repercussions of that crime, but rather, she is a writer first and has the powers to render these events in a virtuosic prose that is simultaneously horrifying and admirable.

The book opens just as Johnson is escaping a soundproof room where she was raped and slated to be murdered. From there Johnson’s narrative is in constant nonlinear motion, racing back and forth between self-confessed naiveté and hard-fought empowerment. Although most of what is contained in “The Other Side” is reflected off of the crime at its center, Johnson is smart enough to use this horrific event to reach for higher truths and new epiphanies. What her audience is left with is a powerful, but often quiet, meditation on memory as it pertains to the physical body. Read the rest of this entry »

Survivors Celebrate: Linda Bubon talks Chicago Independent Bookstore Day

Bookstores 1 Comment »

By Brendan Buck bookstoreday

Linda Bubon is co-owner of Women and Children First, one of Chicago’s foremost independent bookstores, and as Linda describes it, “one of the ten remaining feminist bookstores in North America.” Though its primary mission is promoting women writers, they also feature Chicago writers of any gender identification, as well as male writers whose work is as “important to our understanding of the world as feminists.” Women and Children First hosts many events, including those for children, such as a Where’s Waldo Treasure Hunt this July, but we called her to chat about an event the store is organizing on July 12—Chicago’s first Independent Bookstore Day, in conjunction with Open Books, Sandmeyer’s Bookstore and six other Chicago independents. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?’ by Dave Eggers

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RECOMMENDED yourfathers

Book by book, Dave Eggers has pushed the limit of what he has done before, and then takes one step further. His latest novel may look slim, but it represents another startling leap into new territory.

Here is a tale as tightly wound as an alarm clock. Told entirely in dialogue, it takes place on a deserted military base on the California coast. Thomas, its hero, has kidnapped an astronaut, Kev, and chained him to a post. “I’m a moral man and a principled man,” Thomas assures him.

It’s usually a bad sign when a hostage-taker makes such assertions. It may not be so here. Thomas merely wants to ask Kev a few questions about his past, but then he gets another idea. He grabs another hostage. This victim is a congressman, a double-amputee war veteran who wakes up groggy on the floor. He is kinder to Thomas than Kev, more understanding. He knows this will not end well for Thomas, and pities him: “You’ve got a head full of rocks, kid. And there are a hundred thousand others like you in the desert right now.”

On it goes. Thomas begins conversations and then cuts them short, rushing off for another hostage. He grabs an elementary school teacher; he abducts his own mother. He subdues and kidnaps a police officer.

In the past five years, Eggers has begun writing screenplays and “Your Fathers” yokes the economies of that work—its reliance on dramatic thrust and human speech—to novelistic purpose here. Toggling between his captives, Thomas assembles a kind of explanation for why, as he sees it, the world has forsaken him: it has vacuumed his generation’s sky free of dreams and replaced it with satellites, or “space kites,” as Thomas calls the International Space Station. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking” by Jordan Ellenberg

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RECOMMENDED hownottobewrong

Jordan Ellenberg starts off his mathematics paean by invoking, of all things, sports. Much like math, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Not everyone’s going to be a professional soccer player, he says, but pickup players and World Cup defenders use the same skills. So is it with math. It’s more than just the passing drills of multiplication tables and quadratic formulas. “How Not To Be Wrong” is the logical continuation of Ellenberg’s classroom teaching, and Slate’s “Do The Math” column. For years he’s been working to inspire not just math literacy, but respect and wonder too.

The stories Ellenberg tells—and he is a storyteller—refuse to insult his reader’s intelligence. Whether it’s the bullet-riddled planes coming back from the front or the dead salmon that seem to show a thought process in an MRI, things are not always what they seem. To the mathematician, math is a curious process of assumption and provocation. “How Not To Be Wrong” is part exposé—concepts most of us are never privy to are explained along with obvious surprises we just need to hear over again. (Numbers are fudged, findings inconclusive. If we had a logically mathematical voting system, we’d have elected President Gore.) A truly gifted professor, Ellenberg includes diagrams, proofs and poetry to illustrate his points. His utility has been clearly maximized by the telling of mathematical yarns. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” by Heather O’Neill

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RECOMMENDED thegirl

“The Girl Who Was Saturday Night,” the second novel by Heather O’Neill, follows two years in the life of Nouschka Tremblay. Nouschka and her fraternal twin brother Nicolas grew up as child stars. The product of a night between the irresponsible Quebecois singer Etienne Tremblay, who only raises them when the cameras are running, and a fourteen-year-old groupie, whose only contribution to their upbringing was leaving them on their grandfather’s doorstep, the Tremblay twins’ childhood in the limelight has left them extremely damaged people.

The novel begins when the twins are nineteen and inappropriately attached to one other; they still share the same bed. Nicolas is a petty thief and already a deadbeat dad. Nouschka is an accidental beauty queen who finds herself in the middle of numerous affairs, the next of which might be with Raphael Lemiux, a mentally unstable criminal and former figure skating champion.

“The Girl Who Was Saturday Night” is chiefly about fame. The Tremblays spend the novel dodging the narratives of paparazzi and documentary filmmakers; when Nouschka’s relationship with Raphael flourishes, she vows to “lead a well-adjusted, serene life” to overcome everyone’s expectations for their failure. However, the largest narrative with which they must contend is the one of their supposedly happy childhood in the limelight, when the reality is that it was mostly spent in the squalor of their grandfather’s apartment. As Nouschka says of the reaction of one character to she and Nicolas: “Of course she loved our persona. It was designed to be loved.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Animals: Love Letters Between Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy,” edited by Katherine Bucknell

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theanimals

RECOMMENDED

The most enlightening part of “The Animals” is the introduction. Without it, there would be simply no way to tell what letters Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy had exchanged in times of strife. Isherwood and Bachardy are among the most eminent of historic gay couples: right up there with Stein and Toklas. Isherwood—famous for writing the stories that formed the basis of “Cabaret!” and the novella “A Single Man”—spied a barely legal Bachardy, who would become a portrait sketcher to the stars, on Valentine’s Day in 1953.

“The Animals,” which collects a large sum of the letters the two sent each other, starts three years into their relationship, and soon the lover’s lexicon creeps in. The middle-aged Isherwood is Drubbin, an old wise horse perpetually one trot away from the glue factory, while the frisky young Bachardy plays a snow-white Kitten longing for Drub’s cuddles. As they transcribe their sweet nothings, their hands become paws or hooves, their domiciles baskets or stables.

Aside from each letter’s rather fulsome beginnings and endings, theirs is a pragmatic, chatty love of the day-to-day. It’s odd to discover that Bachardy and Isherwood have similar voices. Both are quick to cut down a boring dinner companion. There are digressions about unpaid bills or slow mail. Theirs is a world of rented apartments, trips to England and notable names: Cecil Beaton, W.H Auden, Glenn Ford. Read the rest of this entry »

Things Fall Apart: Kathleen Rooney on Sexism, Politics and “O, Democracy!”

Author Profiles, Chicago Authors, Fiction No Comments »

KathleenRooney

By Brendan Tynan Buck

Kathleen Rooney’s fifth book cost her job as a senate aid for Dick Durbin. An essay in “For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs” mentioned a flirtation with her boss, the Chicago office district chief, and when that got back to Washington, she was fired. (He wasn’t.) Rooney’s recent novel “O, Democracy!” examines the firing of Colleen Dugan from the employment of “the Senior Senator of Illinois” during the climax of the 2008 election. Though based partly in autobiography, Rooney stresses it’s best to engage her book as standalone fiction. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Kathleen about structuring her novel, sexism in politics, and the presidential election of 2008.

How did your experience as a senate aid inform the creation of the novel?
Writing the book, I tried hard to use my experiences to create something that was definitely fiction, the reason being that I wanted events to be more interesting and logical than real events are. This is my first novel, even if it’s my seventh book. I’ve written memoir before, but I didn’t think that would be the best shape or form for the story that I wanted to tell. The separation between my actual self and my protagonist exists because I wanted to avoid the critique of self-absorbed navel gazing that memoirs often get. I wanted it to be a story that’s not just about one individual, but about a bigger system. Read the rest of this entry »