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Mockingbird by Charles J. Shields

Mockingbird (2006)

by Charles J. Shields

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I found this an interesting account of the life of the reclusive author Harper Lee. The biographer was not able to interview Ms. Lee directly, so nearly all of the material was obtained from files or interviews with people who had known her or had some measure of contact.

It is also somewhat unusual in that a good deal of the narrative is focused on Lee's association with Truman Capote and their coordinated writing of "In Cold Blood." Nevertheless, it is a fine work of research and an interesting look into the life of an author who was famous for the only book she published. ( )
  mldavis2 | Dec 17, 2014 |
Charles J. Shields is clearly an accomplished biographer, but it seems he must have underestimated the difficulty of the task of taking on a biography of Harper Lee, given the paucity of material available to accomplish that task. Harper Lee, born in 1926, is a reclusive author who never published another book after her best-seller To Kill a Mockingbird. For more than fivedecades, since publication in 1960, Harper Lee has consistently refused to make speeches or give interviews. This lack of material shows in the biography, which is therefore only moderately successful.

However, Mockingbird. A portrait of Harper Lee does still contain some material that make reading it interesting. Firstly, the opening chapters of the book give a wonderful description of the languid lifestyle in the South of the United States. The biography also reveals and describes in detail the longstanding and personal friendship since childhood between Harper Lee and Truman Capote, as they grew up in the same small town. Shields describes numerous influences in the works of Harper Lee and Capote, showing how the figure in each other's works under a thin disguise. The most spectacular contribution are the chapters which describe the help Harper Lee gave Truman Capote in doing research for his seminal non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. In effect, the writing of In Cold Blood would not have been possible in its current form if it had not been for Harper Lee.

Obviously, Mockingbird. A portrait of Harper Lee describes the success of Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, and the effect it had on its author. However, the biography remains vague as to why Harper Lee decided to withdraw from public life, and one would expect more detailed description of how that situation came about.

According to later chapters in the biography, Harper Lee is known to have worked or been working on further novellistic work, but little is known about it and none has been published so far. The last part of Mockingbird. A portrait of Harper Lee are vague, and all based on speculation, that does not bring anything significant to light. Supposedly, readers and scholars will have to wait till the estate is executed, to discover an personal details about the author and her ideas before long. It is very unlikely that any other biography could offer more insight that this biography, and therefore, despite its necessary short-comings, Mockingbird. A portrait of Harper Lee is probably the best biography around.

Recommended for readers interested in Harper Lee and particularly her relation to Truman Capote. ( )
1 vote edwinbcn | Dec 7, 2014 |
(Read in 2011.) A so-so book, but I did learn that Harper Lee was very involved in the interviewing for Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." The book painted a mostly unflattering picture of Capote. ( )
  Becky221 | Jan 14, 2014 |
oh, man. i wanted to love this books so much more than i did. i am pretty disappointed. it was okay. fine-ish, even. but it wasn't very good. the second half of the book, post-in cold blood time, was better going for me and seemed less inclined towards something i have recently discovered i really don't like in biographies: reliance upon supposition and inference in times or situations where such information couldn't possibly be known.

it's clear shields is a huge fan of miss lee and that the book was undertaken with good intentions. i guess i am just a bit confused over what that intention really was though? at moments, it all felt a bit...dirty. quotes were used from correspondence obtained between shields and people who had been in miss lee's life, even if just marginally. i never felt confident that these people really knew miss lee or were adding value to her story.

i realize truman capote was a large presence in miss lee's life. i knew that prior to reading this biography. but it seemed to me an awful lot of page space was given over to the funny little man. i am also aware that miss lee has not given interviews or answered requests for appearances for many years. she's not reclusive - in her hometown she is familiar and social. i was aware of this. but her friends and neighbours are protective. (which is so awesome!) so i suppose i am left feeling that there is only so much information here to build a story upon and that the capote stuff is some sort of padding to give heft to the biography. i don't know?

i loved learning that miss lee was a bit of an eccentric on her university campus - preferring to dress in men's striped pyjama bottoms and shocking other student by smoking a pipe! (HA!!)

the one bit of information i did learn that surprised me was that miss lee "wanted to be the jane austen of alabama." thanks to a wonderful high school english teacher, miss lee fell in love with the novels of jane austen. once 'to kill a mockingbird' brought so much financial success to miss lee, she thanked her teacher (who had also helped proofread TKaM) by taking her on a trip to england, to have an austen experience together. awww!!! ( )
1 vote Booktrovert | Sep 20, 2013 |
Sometimes success can come too soon, such as in the case of the high school football star who isn't quite good enough to land a college scholarship. The best years of his life can be over by the time he's 18, making the rest of his life seem anticlimactic.

Harper Lee was several years older than that when "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published. Even so she was not prepared for its instant success and didn't know how to deal with life afterward. She had planned to make writing her life's work, yet she never published another book. Why not? Charles J. Shields addresses that question in "Mockingbird," his biography of Harper Lee, known to her friends as Nelle.

Lee did continue writing after "To Kill a Mockingbird" was published in 1960, but nothing she worked on seemed good enough to her after that debut. She spent a decade or more writing a second novel, also set in the South of her youth, and at one time it was even reported to be ready to go to her publisher. That never happened. She worked for a long time on a nonfiction crime book, something on the order of "In Cold Blood," on which she worked with her childhood friend Truman Capote (the model for Dill in "Mockingbird"). (Shields writes that Lee's efforts made "In Cold Blood" possible, though Capote, perhaps jealous of his friend's success, never gave her proper credit.)

In the end, she simply gave up and became something of a recluse, shunning interviews with reporters and attention from adoring fans. Her lone book continues to produce enough income to live on, though she lives much more simply than would be necessary. Never married, she lives alone, winters in Alabama and summers in New York City.

Asked once why she never wrote another book, Lee replied, "I said what I had to say." That may have been an oversimplification, but still her one book said much more than what most of us can say in a lifetime. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Jul 22, 2012 |
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[Lee] didn't cooperate with this biography, which relies on early interviews and diligent research, but the glimpses we get are tantalizing.
added by Shortride | editTime, Lev Grossman (Jul 16, 2006)
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Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation...Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1
To my mother, Jeanne, and father, Charley, with deepest gratitude
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0805083197, Paperback)

"A fine, well-rounded portrait of Harper Lee. Mockingbird is good reading."—Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)

To Kill a Mockingbird—the twentieth century's most widely read American novel—has sold thirty million copies and still sells a million yearly. Yet despite her book's perennial popularity, its creator, Harper Lee, has become a somewhat mysterious figure. Now, after years of research, Charles J. Shields brings to life the warmhearted, high-spirited, and occasionally hardheaded woman who gave us two of American literature's most unforgettable characters—Atticus Finch and his daughter, Scout.

At the center of Shields's evocative, lively book is the story of Lee's struggle to create her famous novel, but her colorful life contains many highlights—her girlhood as a tomboy in overalls in tiny Monroeville, Alabama; the murder trial that made her beloved father's reputation and inspired her great work; her journey to Kansas as Truman Capote's ally and research assistant to help report the story of In Cold Blood. Mockingbird—unique, highly entertaining, filled with humor and heart—is a wide-ranging, idiosyncratic portrait of a writer, her dream, and the place and people whom she made immortal.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:51 -0400)

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Examines the life of Harper Lee and tells the story of her inspiration and struggle to create her famous novel.

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