Saturday, August 10, 2019

Furious Hours: The Book Harper Lee Didn't Write

Since I've never denied that Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is on the short list of my favorite books--to read and re-read as well as to teach--I was eager to pick up Casey Cep's book Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.

The books begins not with Lee but with the story of Willie Maxwell, who returned to South Alabama after military service first to do work in a local plant and then to become the Rev. Willie Maxwell. The book details a series of mysterious deaths--two wives, a neighbor (and the late husband of wife number two), a nephew, and a step daughter. In each case, he was never convicted, thanks primarily to his lawyer Tom Radney.

Cep shifts between main characters, describing Radney's political career, including an unsuccessful run for Alabama Lt. Governor. The author deftly weaves together her extensive research on the parties involved in the trial before turning her attention to Lee.

The ironic twist comes when Maxwell is killed at the funeral of his step-daughter (and yes, Maxwell was the obvious suspect). Who defends the shooter Robert Burns? Maxwell's lawyer Radney. The trial held in Alexander City draws lots of attention, but most significantly that of Harper Lee. The author, already well-known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, sat through the trial and gathered extensive research of her own, intending to overcome her writer's block and turn it into her second book.

Cep takes the reader through Nell Harper Lee's history before, during, and after there writing of Mockingbird. This including her lifelong connection to Truman Capote first as childhood friends and later as collaborators as Lee assisted Capote in his research for In Cold Blood. She paints a complex and candid picture of the author's life and even her struggle with alcohol.

Eventually, Cep manages to do what Lee could not: find a way to tell this complicated story that evoked as much rumor and innuendo as fact.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

The War to End All Wars--and the Next One: The Alice Network and the Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

 I can't always call them coincidences--those occurrences when I find myself encountering similar elements in more than one book I am reading. (For the record, everything I've read recently has mentioned migration patterns of monarch butterflies and the activities of hummingbirds.)

When I started reading Kate Quinn's novel The Alice Network, I was just following up on recommendations from several friends. (Thank you, Mary June!) This novel follows Charlie St. Clair, a flighty American girl who, after coming home from college pregnant, is taken to London by her parents to take care of her "little problem." She has other ideas, though, since her closest cousin has disappeared. She traces her to a crusty anti-social woman with maimed hands who at first   refuses to help her, but then agrees
to pursue leads, driven a handsome, rough-hewn ex-com in her employ.

The story then shifts back and forth between Charlie's search and the back story of Eve Gardiner, who had served as a spy in what was called "The Alice Network" in German-occupied France.

Simultaneously, I had started reading The Impossible Lives of Great Wells by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Andrew Sean Greer. This novel followed a woman who undergoes electro-shock therapy in 1985 after losing her twin brother to AIDS and her lover, who simply leaves her for someone else. As she goes through the series of treatments, she is sent back first to 1918 and next to 1941. While she's the same person, surrounded again by her brother Felix, her lover/husband Nathan, and even her favorite aunt, she sees her live unfold differently each time, set against the back drop of WWI and WWII.

As she moves between lives, she realizes that her other selves are moving into the lives she has left. While I don't like gimmick for gimmick's sake, I enjoyed Greer's take on how one change in our lives can have ripple effects and how changing our time and place can cause changes in us as well.

Both novels--so different from one another--gave me a look at the effect of both great wars both on the front and on the home front.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl:

Anyone in Nashville who loves books and good writing has probably heard the name Margaret Renkl. Her book launch at Parnassus Books was an event! With the release of her book Late Migrations, plenty of other readers should know the name soon. I read one of the short pieces from the book in the Oxford American magazine, "The Imperfect Family Beatitudes." I was hooked.

The book, which can be classified as part flash memoir, part essay collection, digs back into Renkl's family history, recording stories told by her grandmother (e.g., "In Which Grandmother Tells the Story of the Day She was Shot), making inferences about the author's mother's depression, and chronicling events from her childhood (e.g. "Things I Knew When I Was Six" and "Things I Didn't Know When I Was Six.")

With none of the essays or sketches more than three pages, she also weaves in her keen observations of plant life, Monarch butterflies, and--literally--the birds and the bees. And while each piece is short, this is not one of those books to be stacked with the Readers Digest copies in the powder room for quick reads. I found myself turning "one more page, one more essay" without a break. She makes use of specific but unpretentious language to describe the world around her--from Lower Alabama to Nashville.

Her occasional literary allusions are delightful for literary sorts without being off-putting to any of her readers. As a result, she has produced a reading experience that will have readers ticking off a list of people who must read the book next.