Saturday, June 10, 2006

Harper Lee, American writer

When Garrison Keillor writes a book review about a Harper Lee biography it is hard to know how to start telling about it. Perhaps it's the emptiness of our time, but I get all sappy when I think about the story about the story about the story...and so forth.

Even non-literary types know the title To Kill a Mockingbird. A few less, but many, also know the name of Harper Lee. Fewer still know anything abut her, least of all that she is still alive and is famously, intensely private. Among my fantasies is that I might one day meet this remarkable literary icon. (We are all free to daydream, you know. After all, I did have the same high school English teacher as Carson McCullars and a closed-circuit TV class with Mike Shaara a couple of years later.)

She is 80 years old and wears a hearing aid and eats out at the diner or the country club and to strangers who seek her out, she can be frosty. A reporter and photographer from Birmingham banged on her door 10 years ago and Miss Lee opened it and said, "What is it?" They asked her to autograph a copy of her book. She wasn't happy about it but she fetched a pen. "I hope you're more polite to other people," she said. She signed it: "Best wishes, Harper Lee." She said, "Next time try to be more thoughtful." They thanked her. She gave them a big warm smile and said, "You're quite welcome."

Charles Shields is a former English teacher who taught Harper Lee's book, and a scrupulous journalist who respects the lady's privacy even as he opens up her life. This biography will not disappoint those who loved the novel and the feisty, independent, fiercely loyal Scout, in whom Harper Lee put so much of herself.

The review is in tomorrow's Times.
The book is MOCKINGBIRD, A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields.
H/T to Azra Raza at 3 Quarks.

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