Daily: Bits & Bob’s yer uncle



After a long stretch of feeling pretty okay, insomnia and that black dog depression reared their ugly heads once again. The all too familiar slide began before Christmas. I thought once the holidays passed I’d bounce back; a couple weeks later, I realized that wasn’t going to happen without intervention.

You can’t be proud when it comes to your health. I talked with my doctor, he prescribed a “nudge” medication, and I’m back to sleeping like a baby.

I can feel the slightest deviation in mood. My brain’s like a Stradivarius, without the market value. There’s no need to suffer when you don’t have to, especially when it compromises something as important as sleep.


* * * * * * *


Reading-wise, I’m accumulating a lot more books than I’m reading.

I know: GASP.

Five or six books joined my vintage Penguin pile (I’ll tell you later), along with publisher freebies and the fruits of several ill-advised visits to bookstores. I say “ill-advised” only because I’m carrying a balance on my credit card I’d theoretically very much like to pay off.

Among other things, I found this gorgeous copy of Alice in Wonderland, illustrated by Andrea D’Aquino:



Mistress Alice


The White Rabbit


The caterpillar & his hookah



* * * * * * *

What to do with five days off…

Poor me, I requested my birthday (March 28) and the four days following off work. Now I have to choose a destination. Don’t you even say Scotland.

Just NO.

One thing I neglected to consider: late March is prime spring break season. Anyplace warm will be packed with thousands of college kids vomiting their brains out in the streets. Outstanding. There goes Nola, for sure. Right before Easter, at the height of party season? Nice planning, idiot.

I need to pick a place kids don’t care about, far from the madding crowd. Something tells me they won’t be hunting things literary like I will. I know, I’m probably giving them short shrift. Of course American kids are erudite.

Nope. Can’t manage a straight face.

Here are the options I’ve chosen:


Native of Asheville, NC

Option One: Asheville, NC.

Asheville is on my shortlist of possible places to move. It’s roughly a ten-hour drive, so close enough I can zip back to the Chicago area to visit the kids with relative ease. It’s kind of in the South, along the Atlantic seaboard, so it’s milder. It’s also damned beautiful.

A towering figure in American letters – Thomas Wolfe – hails from Asheville, plus it’s roughly two short hours to gorgeous Charleston, right on the Atlantic. The drive there would be beautiful, and there’s plenty to see and do.


Harper Lee and Truman Capote

Option Two: Alabama!

A literary loop in Alabama, now that’s not a bad idea.

Yes, I said Alabama.

Harper Lee was from Alabama. Truman Capote visited her in Monroeville every summer, as a child. Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald owned a home in Montgomery, where Zelda was born.

The state’s actually blessed with literary connections. And losing Republican senators.


Burlington, VT

Option Three: Swoon.

New England. Lovely, lovely New England. Choices here are limitless. So limitless I can’t choose. What an awful problem to have.

But… And this is a very big but… It’s six hours further than Asheville. Thirty-two hours driving in the space of five days? I love road trips, but holy mother of gawd.


Sweet home, Chicago

Option Four: Staycation in Lovely Chicago.

I don’t take enough advantage of living next to this beautiful city. All the architecture, the Newberry Library, the Art Institute… It’s true you neglect what’s right under your nose.

And I don’t mean your mouth.

Hotels are expensive in the city, sure. But no more than I’d be paying on long road trips, not to mention gas – and wear and tear on the car. Of course, it’s also minus Asheville and Alabama and New England.


If you were me, which would you pick?

go set a watchman by harper lee

My feelings about the publication of Harper Lee’s “lost” first novel have been, to put it mildly, very mixed. When I first learned of the book’s existence, my initial reaction was pure joy. What could be more exciting than stumbling upon a previously unpublished book written by an iconic writer?


Then, on the heels of the big announcement of this book, came the great hue and cry. Harper Lee had become, in the intervening years between her great success and the news about the “finding” of Go Set a Watchman, a woman no longer in control of her faculties. The famous writer, once so feisty and full of fire, was now reportedly deaf and senile, her ability to aquiesce to the publication of her first book dubious, at best. It was then I began hearing the whole story, started digging into accounts of the great battle between the author’s late sister and former attorney/protector and the woman who’d taken up that mantle since Alice Lee’s death: Harper Lee’s new attorney, Tonya Carter. For once the author’s sister was no longer in the way, Carter was now in control of Lee’s estate. It’s a short fall from being given the reins to taking power.

Whether this means the whole affair has been a greedy grasp  for the money guaranteed by the publication of Watchman or, by her new lawyer’s assertion, Harper Lee’s own fully-realized wish to publish this book is not clear. We can only speculate and, of course, that’s a dangerous and slippery path.


“As Alice’s health declined — she died last year at 103 — Ms. Carter assumed more responsibility for the firm and for Harper Lee.

It was in her role as Ms. Lee’s lawyer that Ms. Carter said she came upon the “Watchman” manuscript while rummaging through Ms. Lee’s bank safe deposit box last August. There is a conflicting account that the manuscript might have been found years earlier by an appraiser for Sotheby’s. Ms. Carter has disputed that version of events.”

  • from “Another Drama in Harper Lee’s Hometown” by Serge F. Kovaleski and Alexandra Alter, The New York Times


From my initial excitement in first hearing of the book, my opinion quickly swung to indignation at what could well be the manipulation of an eldery woman – who also happens to be an iconic and revered author – by an opportunistic lawyer, for never let it be said the profession isn’t easy enough to smear. It’s not difficult believing the worst, not in this case.

The taint put on the endeavor is what kept me from reading the book this long, why I didn’t dive into it immediately upon publication. Why I pulled it off the bookshelf now I don’t know. I was looking for something to read and there it was. My hand went to it, I opened it up, and many pages later realized I was immersed – it is that gripping. It didn’t even occur to me, on starting the reading of it, that it was nearly Martin Luther King’s birthday. I’d come to recognize this only once I found out the company I now work at, one based in Birmingham, Alabama, gives its employees the day off for the holiday, something unusual here in Chicago. Otherwise, it would likely have passed me by completely, the connection between the civil rights leader’s life, the themes of this book and my timing missed.


"Department Store, Mobile, Alabama," by Gordon Parks (1956)

“Department Store, Mobile, Alabama,” by Gordon Parks (1956)


In brief, the background explaining the book’s failure to be published in the first place asserts Harper Lee’s publisher rejected it, instead asking that she come at the story from a different angle. The resulting second novel was, of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. The rest is literary history.


To Kill a Mockingbird, screenplay by Horton Foote (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird, screenplay by Horton Foote (1962)


As it turns out, Go Set a Watchman is a gob-smacker of a book, a total shock for what it contains. Having read and re-read To Kill a Mockingbird several times over, Lee’s first novel comes as a revelation. Atticus Finch is an iconic character. Go Set a Watchman turns everything about him on its head. The man we thought we knew so well, so it turns out, is far more complex than we ever knew. And it doesn’t all sit so easily.

It’s not all pretty, her original intent. Harper Lee didn’t set out to paint the picture of such a pure spirit as the world came to know, a man of single-minded motivation, all directed toward the idea of pure racial equality damn the ramifications. It’s my assertion, having finished it, her original book may have been rejected on the basis of its brutal honesty, its refusal to sugar-coat or create a figure like the one we’ve come to know as Atticus Finch. She re-wrote the book, giving into the pressure, but did she do herself a disservice in the process?

Old Courthouse Museum, Monroeville, AL (Mike Brantley/mbrantley@al.com)

Old Courthouse Museum, Monroeville, AL (Mike Brantley/mbrantley@al.com)

Honestly, I’m a bit afraid to answer and I’m not even sure I can. Go Set a Watchman is the story of a grown woman who, having left the podunk Alabama town she’d grown up in, returns on one of her annual visits, inevitably finding a much smaller place than she’d left. Jean Louse “Scout” Finch relates all the usual internal struggles, pitting big city life against a past at once quaint and hiding a disturbing quality she hadn’t seen as a child. Now grown, her maturity allows for a clearer vision in some ways, but as it turns out not all her newfound perceptions are so clear-cut. Her father may not be the hero she thought but is he the villain she now believes him to be?

““But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing. I think that is why I’m nearly out of my mind.”

  • Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman is a more mature book than To Kill a Mockingbird, a truth fitting considering it’s written later in the life of its main character, Scout Finch. It also serves as a fitting companion to the book, though one that’s no less jarring for what it does to the reputation of Atticus. But what perhaps surprised, even delighted me more is the continuity Lee maintained from the young Scout to the 26-year old, returning woman. It’s as if she did initially hope it would eventually see publication, for she did keep the character true to herself, making a point of keeping the story line as it was to begin with, carrying over into Mockingbird. This doesn’t read as much like a replacement book as a prequel. It reads like a book she hadn’t given up on.

So, did Harper Lee understand when her attorney told her it was, at last, hitting the presses? Was Tonya Carter telling the truth, or has Lee’s now legendary, adamant refusal to write another book – ignoring the fact she actually had – been her true stance all these years? It seems unlikely we’ll ever know, now. Cloaked in the darkness of growing dementia, Harper Lee doesn’t appear capable of saying.


“I never expected any sort of success with ‘Mockingbird’… I sort of hoped someone would like it enough to give me encouragement.”

  • Harper Lee


For better or worse, Go Set a Watchman is a fine novel. Imperfect but, partially due to its provenance, a fine story and worthy successor to To Kill a Mockingbird. I certainly never believed I’d say that – it shocks me more than you know – but I have to speak the truth as I see it. This is a revelatory tale, if a bit rough-edged and less well-crafted than Mockingbird. Lee would certainly have cleaned it up a bit more, had it been slated for publication originally, possibly taking out a few self-consciously written passages, breaks in point of view I cringed to read. She may not be pleased to know it was published as it is, warts and all. But would she be pleased on general principle?

Harper Lee remains an enigma. Her reputation is set, her legacy secure, what she wanted now moot. My only hope is she wouldn’t have been distressed knowing her first book is her final legacy, because that would be a true shame.  Not that anything can take away her significance or what she’s given the world. Nothing can ever do that. To Kill a Mockingbird is one for the ages, her great gift. At the least, she will die knowing that.


“We wondered, sometimes, when your conscience and his would part, company, and over what.” Dr. Finch smiled. “Well, we know now. I’m just thankful I was around when the ructions started. Atticus couldn’t talk to you the way I’m talking—” “Why not, sir?” “You wouldn’t have listened to him. You couldn’t have listened. Our gods are remote from us, Jean Louise. They must never descend to human level.”

  • Go Set a Watchman


 Harper Lee in the Monroeville courthouse. Photograph: Donald Uhrbrock/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Harper Lee in the Monroeville courthouse. Photograph: Donald Uhrbrock/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images


Harper Lee and the rights of an author

I could argue either way on the “should Lee’s “lost” novel be published or shouldn’t it” question. As a greedy reader, addicted to the literature of my native South, a big part of me wants desperately to get my grubby hands on the new novel coming out this July. However, as Harper Lee is still alive and kicking, as well as reportedly mostly blind and deaf, a pang of conscience grips me. Is the publication of Go Set a Watchman her own decision or is she being manipulated in her aged and vulnerable state? Her current lawyer (following the death of her sister Alice at age 100, Lee’s former attorney and fierce protector) insists Miss Lee is both aware and pleased her first manuscript has been found and will be published this summer. Yet, the timing – so soon after Alice’s death at the end of last year – could hardly be more suspect. With her sister out of the way, her life is in the hands of people who may or may not have a personal stake in the guaranteed millions of dollars of revenue. Go Set a Watchman is set to explode.

Harper Lee retired from public life decades ago, expressing her firm dislike of speaking about To Kill a Mockingbird – with very few exceptions. With her sister acting as buffer, Miss Lee has lead the life of a recluse. She’s had no interest in interviewing or any sort of public discourse on her work. So, why the reversal? Why would she go against a lifetime contention TKAM was to be her one and only work and she had nothing more to say?

This latest case is one in a long string of similar questionable situations concerning posthumous publication of an author’s works. Writers such as: Kafka, Salinger, Jane Austen, Willa Cather, et. al., left express instructions certain pieces, and/or letters, never see the light of day. These authors were dead and buried before publishers grabbed the manuscripts and ran with them but it still feels borderline uncomfortable. Never mind the writers will never know their writings were published.

Unlike the authors listed above, Harper Lee is still on this earthly plane, for how long no one can know. How crippled she is by dementia isn’t clear and could easily be masked by those in control of her estate. In a way, she may as well be dead if her mental capacities aren’t clear enough to realize what’s going on around her, how her previous instructions are being honored or not. Which brings up the question, is there no limit to which an artist’s work belongs to the world at large?

I’m not saying there’s an answer. I know I’ll buy and read the book and any opinions I express won’t influence anyone one way or the other. It’s purely theoretical, this question of morality. It continues to gnaw at me but it’s certainly not the only instance in which I’m conflicted. If it were up to me, Cassandra would have gone against Jane Austen’s wishes, publishing all her letters. Kafka and Salinger’s works would have been published as they have been and the partial manuscript David Foster Wallace left behind would be available to eager readers. I am not the paragon of morality and I don’t claim to be.

Yet, I have to ask the questions. I need to mull them over, even as I’m racing through “forbidden” books never intended for public consumption. Does the material belong to me? Strictly speaking, I believe the answer is no. Should I be in possession of it? Perhaps not but that doesn’t stop me. Do I feel I’ve taken the moral high-ground? Not really.

What does this make me and what does this make readers like me? Let the repercussions fall where they may; I am a fallible human but an honest one. Karma, it’s over to you, for better or worse.



“American Masters”: Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee



I hope you were able – or will, if it hasn't aired where you are yet – to catch the two episodes of the PBS series "American Masters" featuring authors Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. They were magnificent programs -  great intros to these two writers if you, like me, really didn't know a whole lot about their lives, aside from the one great book each produced.



Watching theses episodes made me realize how little I really knew about these two grande dames of Southern Literature, and how much less I knew about Margaret Mitchell than Harper Lee. I never thought about Mitchell any further than Gone With the Wind, never knew how driven she was or that she was an early supporter of feminism, to which she was so dedicated it didn't matter to her she became a social pariah because of it.

Born wealthy in a strongly Irish Catholic family, her parents' standards for her were high. Her mother, in particular, was coldly dedicated to duty, insisting her daughter follow the same principle. Young Margaret yearned for her mother's love, to, as the program quoted, "put her head in her mother's lap," but her mother, Maybelle Mitchell, wasn't that sort.  Even on her deathbed, Maybelle's final letter to her daughter was filled with admonitions on how not to act. Never once did she mentioned she loved her daughter.



Then, Harper Lee, a writer I prefer because I believe her To Kill a Mockingbird was a more pivotal work than Mitchell's sole novel. She was raised the daughter of Amasa Lee, an attorney, and Frances Finch. Seeing as she was a tomboy as a young girl, like Scout Finch, the elements for TKAM become more and more obviously autobiographical. Also, the young neighbor boy she played with as a child, and remained friends with a good portion of her life, was the model for the character of Dill. He was a budding writer himself. His name was Truman Capote.

As she grew older, she entertained the idea of following in her father's footsteps and becoming an attorney (the route her older sister took), choosing instead to flee to New York where she hoped to make a name for herself. Ultimately, she and Capote would wind up together there, as well.

I'm intrigued by her friendship with Truman Capote and the part she played helping him research his masterpiece In Cold Blood. Sadly, the two did not remain friends, due, at least in part, to Capote's reported jealousy of the Pulitzer Lee won for Mockingbird, a prize he'd expected to win for In Cold Blood. What a shame, considering they grew up such close friends in tiny Monroeville, AL.

What were the odds two literary giants would grow up living next to each other in a small Alabama town? It's one of those karmic coincidences that almost makes me think there's some degree of order to the Universe. Almost.



Sales of both Mitchell and Lee's books were unprecedented, especially GWTW, which sold thousands (at $ 3 each, which was then big money – don't I wish hardbacks were still that price…) during the height of the Depression. Astounding. And, of course, both became huge hits on the screen- Academy Award-winning classics the both of them.

I gained much more respect for Mitchell from watching the program. I've read GWTW twice, and seen the movie several times. When I was young it made me believe the South was so romantic, that I was fortunate to have been a product of it, my southern bloodline going back so many generations I couldn't even count. My ancestors fought as Confederates, naturally, at least one becoming a decorated soldier, one other dying at Andersonville as a prisoner of war.

As I matured I learned what lay beneath that thin, gracious veneer, the myth of the gentle folk rocking on front porches, drinking mint juleps. Once the truth became clear I felt anger seeing the Confederate flag flying, or stuck to the back of a pickup truck. Next to the swastika it's one of the most vile symbols of oppression and cruelty, and my former, misguided feelings of pride became shame and anger at my own delusions.

Despite the double shames of slavery and the bloodbath of war, I can still feel pride at the strong literary heritage of the South. And there's no denying these two southern ladies are icons of American literature, at least one of whom produced a work laying out the great injustice of racial prejudice.

And maybe, just maybe, after Harper Lee passes away she'll leave us with another literary legacy to soften our sorrow. Maybe she'll surprise us with the follow-up she's been working on all these many years, since withdrawing from public view and refusing to speak more about TKAM. Maybe she didn't destroy the work she started following TKAM, then reportedly abandoned. But hopefully we'll all have to wait a very long time to find out, and she'll stay on this earth for many more years.