On being Southern

Northern mockingbird (Mimus polyglottos)

The Northern Mockingbird

Last night, I finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and it was the first novel that I have read so far in this project that has felt like a contemporary popular novel:  natural feeling dialogue, dynamic characters and situations, descriptive though not overly so, a captivating plot.  I can see why the freshman novel immediately became a bestseller when it was published in 1960.  I will also be watching the movie version of the Pulitzer Prize winning book starring Gregory Peck, since it’s waiting for me on my DVR.

I must admit that I am strangely drawn to the Southerness of certain novels, since it reflects a particular culture with which I am familiar.  Seeing colloquialisms and superstitions in print is a fascinating lesson in observation.  These are things I know, but do not notice, and therefore see no need to mention them in writing because of their very prevalent nature.  But putting burlap sacks and towels over your azaleas when a frost is coming doesn’t happen everywhere, and mentioning details like that points out to me the value of the unique Southern traditions I take for granted.  It makes me oddly proud of where I come from, warts and all.  My brother has an amazing retention and recall of movie lines and can mimic other people’s personal catch phrases and personality ticks with skill.  His powers of observation are like that of a really good author, and I realize that I need to try to learn a little more of that skill from him. 

It is fascinating to me that To Kill a Mockingbird was Harper Lee’s only novel.  It took her two and a half years to write and she once threw it out the window into the snow she was so frustrated with her progress.  Her publisher made her retrieve it, but tried to set her expectations low about how few people would probably read it.  Lee had sufficiently low expectations, but they were both wrong.  She has refused interviews about the book since 1964 saying that its unexpected popularity was almost worse than the quick and painless death she thought the story would die when it was originally published.  Her actual response to interview requests, apparently, is “Hell no!” 

As of yet, she has not written a follow-up novel.  It makes me wonder why.  Was it the only novel she had in her?  Did fame and acceptance jade her about the possibility of another success?  Was she afraid to try again and possibly not do as well as the first time?  Was the creation process just too difficult?  I could see any of those explanations being likely.  The title is an analogy.  When you say something is like killing a mockingbird, a bird that is not a pest and does nothing but provide beautiful song, it means that you are destroying something beautiful that does nothing but provide joy.  Predominant themes in the book are rape, racial disparity and loss of innocence, so the title obviously reflects those losses as well as an important event at the end which I will not divulge for a change.  Perhaps for Harper Lee, the fame the book achieved killed the original passion she had for writing and she accidentally killed her own mockingbird.  

This is the kind of novel I aspire to write, and being in the throes of that attempt has made the reading of this book even more interesting to me.  I found that despite my best efforts to read critically and parse the techniques used to move the plot or describe the characters, I was continually swept up in the story and forgot to analyze it.  Maybe I’m just not good at that sort of analysis.  Maybe I just pick up the few things I’ve learned about writing by osmosis.  But maybe this novel is just that good.

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Hello world!

Books

Ahhh, the classics

I decided, in a moment of shame and disgust combined with dash of insanity, that I wanted to read the 100 greatest books ever written.  There are four primary reasons that I decided to embark on this project and document it in a blog.

1.  I am an avid reader.  Almost always have been.  When I was very young, my mother used to complain to my father that I was staying up til all hours of the night reading . . . and the books weren’t even ones I was supposed to be reading for school.  (Oh, the horror!)  My father said simply, “At least she’s reading.”  That must have been comfort enough in a family of intellectual snobs, because I was left alone to choose my own reading materials as long as I got through the assigned stuff too.  Jump ahead about 30 years.  So this particular summer of 2010, I had just finished getting my MBA during which time I was almost entirely unable to read for pleasure.  My graduation present to myself was a trip to Barnes & Noble to purchase books that I WANTED to read.  Fastforward a bit more to August.  My extended family was enjoying the annual family reunion/bachanal at the beach where I am lucky enough to live all year.  It is no exaggeration to say that in the two weeks we stayed in that beach house, we did not turn on the television once.  Everybody, including my four teenage nieces, preferred reading to watching the boob tube.  I had run out of my own books to read and started borrowing from my extremely bookish family.  I picked one up by a well-known and successful author who focuses his fiction on the lawyer-genre.  I got about one chapter into it, and I put the book down wondering to myself, “Why am I reading this?  It’s trash!  It’s like I’m only reading it to have something to read.  There are so many amazing books out there that I have never read.  Why am I wasting my time with this?”  So, I shamed myself into making a list of wonderful books that need to be read.

2.  I am a classically trained (thanks, Dad) and highly accomplished procrastinator.  I can make this list of novels and have the best of intentions, but end up watching reruns of “Two and a Half Men”.  However, I am also extremely motivated by guilt and shame.  Proceeding on this journey on an open blog, although I can’t imagine who’s going to read it, raises the very real possibility of failing to complete my self-assigned task in a humiliatingly public way.  I am anticipating that my fear of public failure will outweigh my desire to procrastinate.  It’s nice that I recognize such admirable qualities in myself, don’t you think?

3.  I am a writer . . . or at least, I aspire to be.  It’s always tricky to make this assertion as everybody starts to critique anything you put on a page, so let’s just nip that one in the bud right now.  I don’t need stylistic and grammatical critiques on my blog.  I only say this as further explanation of the project.  I’m not going to be trying out excerpts of my novel on you.  I am really only hoping that by reading truly great works of literary art, I can recognize little bits and pieces of what makes them great.  In doing so, I’m also hoping that greatness transfers to me by proximity.  I know that’s not the way it works, really, but a girl can hope.

4.  And the fourth reason, is that I aspire to be a writer.  So I guess it’s really reason #3(b) rather than #4.  I have this amazing ability to NOT write, even though I desperately want to do so.  It’s uncanny.  It’s already taken me 2 days to put the first word on this blog.  Instead, I procrastinated by picking the theme and learning about tools & widgets & whatnot.  I am always preparing to write, but so rarely actually write.  This is the reason for the blog part of the equation.  If I can get in the habit of creative writing on a regular basis . . . writing anything! . . . I believe it will bring me that much closer to writing the great American novel.  Or at least a moderately successful piece of trash that one might read during those summer days on the beach.

And don’t kid yourself . . . I finished reading that trashy lawyer novel first.