Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Rest in Peace Harper Lee

To Kill a Mockingbird is a favorite of mine. But I have to say a little something about Harper Lee’s wonderful friends, fans, and editor. I blogged about Lee and her novels three times in July 2015 but as the world grieves her death I have to agree with the African proverb that, “it takes a village to raise a child”.

In 2014 Sean Braswell told the story of how a “village” supported Lee’s creative dream: “In 1956 Lee was a rather taciturn 30-year-old ticket agent for the British Overseas Airways Company, who, like many aspiring writers, had come to New York City to pursue her dream. But after seven years of struggle, it seemed beyond her grasp. And without further help, and with no Kickstarter for another 53 years, that is perhaps where her dream would have ended.

Luckily, thanks to an introduction from Truman Capote, her childhood friend and neighbor, Lee had made two very good friends in New York: a Broadway composer named Michael Brown and his wife, Joy, a Balanchine dancer.

Lee became a bona fide extension of the Brown family, and any free time she had that was not devoted to writing was spent with Michael, Joy and their three boys at the Browns’ East 50th Street brownstone. The Browns had read Lee’s short stories, and they appreciated her dream — and her immense gift — better than anyone. They also shared her frustration at the challenges of writing while holding down a full-time job.

The Browns did not want to see Lee spend her life working as an airlines clerk while hoping to become something else.

So, in the fall of 1956, when the Browns came into some cash because Michael had been hired to create a show for Esquire magazine, they decided to do something about Lee’s situation and to give their friend a big break — literally. When Lee opened her Christmas present from the couple that year, she found a note that read: ‘You have one year off from your job to write whatever you please. Merry Christmas.’

In short order, Lee quit her job, got an agent and devoted herself to writing. Just over a year later, she had a finished manuscript and a publisher. And the result of the Browns’ generous gift (which Lee later repaid in full) and Lee’s newfound freedom was no less than the Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling novel of the 20th century, To Kill a Mockingbird .”

To Kill a Mockingbird still sells 750,000 copies each year. What writer wouldn’t be thrilled with simply selling 750,000 copies in a lifetime? And what writer wouldn’t welcome a couple of angel investors as well as an astute agent/editor/publisher?

We are all grateful for Lee’s friends and their undying support. But even with all this support, Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff, didn’t believe Lee’s manuscript was fit for publication. She described it as “more a series of antidotes than a fully conceived novel.” According to Jonathan Mahler, Hohoff worked with Lee for three years before Mockingbird appeared on bookshelves in 1960.

We now see where Mockingbird came from—Go Set a Watchman was the original manuscript that was published last year amid overwhelming controversy. Yes, it’s one of those good novels like so many I read and put down with a sigh. You just know that as good as it is, it’s not going to be a best seller or a ‘change the world’ piece of literature. (I’ve also blogged about this on January fourth of this year: How Harper Collins Cheated Wiley Cash.) So many writers, myself included, never have the good fortune to have our manuscripts picked up by someone like Tay Hohoff who can help us turn our good novels into great novels. Harper Lee could have lived out her life as a ticket agent chasing a dream that was not to be. Instead, she allowed the village to hold her up and let her fly. And the world is a better place because of her.

                                                                             Leo L. Fuchs/Universal Pictures/Photofest

And as long as the world goes on, we’ll remember Atticus, Scout, Jem, Tom Robinson, and Boo with endearment. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Summer of Letting Go (p.33). Gae Polisner: “I swallow back a lump in my throat. I miss Lisette. I miss us. I know I was just at her house, but we’re not quite us anymore. Something is off between us. There’s a crack turning into a chasm. It keeps stretching wider and wider.” 

Gae Polisner

The Summer of Letting Go is a story of Francesca (“Frankie” and sometimes “Beans”), an almost sixteen-year-old girl laden with heavy burdens—the worst of which is the drowning death of her four-year-old brother, Simon under her apparent watch. Left alone on the beach while her parents sleep on a blanket in the sun, Frankie is distracted for a moment while Simon is washed out to sea. The grief and guilt her parents experience is nothing compared to Frankie’s.

How can Frankie bare to love herself or let anyone else love her when she has allowed to let her brother die?

Frankie meets the four-year-old Frankie Sky as he plunges to the bottom of the country club pool. He reminds her of her brother.

From chapter 3: “I watch, frozen, as his blond curls float upward while the rest of him plummets down. Bubbles escape his mouth, and his blue eyes blink up at me. The air turns thick and dark, and a thousand panicked memories skitter like water bugs across the sun-bleached landscape of my brain. A bright summer day. The sparkling water. Simon, and the sand castle, and the waves.”

Frankie seems like a rather normal young teen full of self-doubt, longing to be curvier, prettier, and wishing for a boy who will bring her what her best friend, Zette, has.

From chapter 16: “What does it feel like, Zette, seriously,” I ask, letting the last little ember singe the tips of my fingers, “to kiss a guy that way?” She looks out over the water, her face illuminated by moonlight, and holds her burnt-out sparkler in front of her. “Like this, Beans. It feels just like this. All electric and sparkly. Like your entire heart is on fire. And when it’s over, you can’t wait to do it again.” And though I promised not to be, I’m filled with envy.

The typical “angry” teen shows up when she decides to confront her parents in chapter 33—her mother for apparently blaming her for her brother’s death and her father for an apparent love affair. I liked this Francesca. She is honest and forthright and fighting to “let go” of all the past horror and pain.

The Summer Of Letting Go is Teen level Young Adult Fiction novel that touched my emotions with beautiful prose—even if I am 71!