The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper LeeSo sorry for the lack of updates over the last few weeks! I was taking an extended summer vacay (and reading plenty of new books) so there should be many reviews ahead of us ūüôā

I was intrigued by The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee when I first heard about it last year, blogging about it in one of my earlier posts, well before news of Go Set A Watchman erupted. So of course I finally had to get around to reading it since Watchmen was our August book club pick Рwatch out for my upcoming review!

As author Marja Mills tells it, she befriended the Lee sisters in 2001 after interviewing them for a piece in¬†The Chicago Tribune¬†about the “One Book, One Chicago” program, which encouraged the entire city to read To Kill A Mockingbird.¬†In 2004, on medical leave from her job, she moves in next door to them (apparently with their blessing, despite their previous disregard for journalists) and spends the next eighteen months sharing coffee, friendship, and memories. Among the topics largely off the table was their allegedly mentally-ill mother and the rift with Truman Capote. On the table was conversations about the South, history and literature, and¬†To Kill A Mockingbird¬†and (ironically) Harper Lee’s failure to publish another book.

Unexpectedly, this is Mills’ story as much as it’s about the Lees. I appreciated the framework this¬†provided, but I was undoubtedly not reading this book to hear about her life story so it made for some jarring transitions. For example, the book follows a relatively chronological narrative thread for Mills while jumping around wildly between topics concerning the Lees, leading to¬†redundant moments and off-topic meandering. Mills does do good work in sharing¬†Nelle’s and Alice’s characters with a curious audience, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the past of such inspiring women.

Unfortunately, after the book’s publication, Nelle¬†disavowed it so take its content with a grain of salt. While I enjoyed¬†the collected anecdotes¬†and selfishly appreciated that¬†it put¬†Watchmen¬†into better perspective for me, I feel bad about the abuse of trust perpetuated by both books. ¬†Perhaps its publication should’ve waited until Nelle’s death, but if you want to know more about the genius behind¬†Mockingbird, this is an insightful read.

3 Stars


Power Forward: My Presidential Education by Reggie Love

Power Forward: My Presidential EducationReggie Love’s memoir,¬†Power Forward: My Presidential Education, served as our book club’s May pick. A summer slacker, I opted for lazing in the backyard with another book rather than go to the discussion of this one, and apparently didn’t miss much by doing so.

Formerly a well-known Duke basketball and football player, Love became President Obama’s bodyman/personal assistant when he was still a Senator and acted in that capacity until his second term in the presidency. Love’s memoir fluctuates between sporting analogies, humorous (and not-so-humorous) campaign trail-to-Oval Office anecdotes, and character development affirmations. Unfortunately, this makes for a disjointed story, with each chapter ending on a “moral of the story” note that fails to coalesce to a larger point.

This book is not a deep analysis, but Love does offer some insightful commentary on politics. More so than Love himself, Obama is the star of this book. Unless you’re an avid Duke fan, most readers are probably picking this up for a its new, more personal perspective on the President. It’s an easy read, if not particularly entertaining or poignant.

3 Stars

Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

Six Wives by David StarkeyFirst, an apology because I’ve seriously been slacking with the reviews. Sorry folks! But I should have a number of good posts up in the next few weeks.

Now, I picked up David Starkey’s¬†Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII¬†because I had just read Elizabeth Freemantle’s¬†Queen’s Gambit, and it always frustrates me when I read historical fiction about real important figures because I can’t separate the history from the fiction. I was debating between Starkey and Alison Weir’s¬†The Six Wives of Henry VIII, both of which had equally good reviews on Goodreads, but ultimately made my decision based on availability at the library.

And Starkey, noted British historian and Tudor expert, was a good choice though obviously I can’t compare the two (but I did not appreciate his open disdain for Weir’s work in the foreword). He divided his book up into sections, with the larger first half concentrating on Henry’s first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and a slightly smaller chunk thereafter on Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, that left the remaining book to four queens, who got short-shrifted a bit, but I guess that’s inevitable given the strong political-cultural impact of the cold war between Catherine’s and Anne’s factions. Additionally, all six queens had to share room with countless other, predominantly male courtiers, which I thought detracted from the supposed¬†focus.

I’m not going to lie, these parts of it were quite dry and Starkey’s consistent shifting between usage of titles and given names made the narrative at times confusing. However, I think he was particularly good at delving into the international political intrigue of the period and extremely thorough in his examination of various individual’s motives for their actions. While this made the reader quite sympathetic to the queens, Henry’s longing for a son didn’t excuse his foul treatment of women in my eyes nor did Starkey’s free pass make me like the author any more than the subject.

At a hefty 800 pages, it’s not a light read nor a great one. Nevertheless, for fans of the Tudor period, including fictional works like the series¬†The Tudors,¬†Starkey’s biography provides rich context to fill in any gaps in knowledge.

3 Stars

William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyWilliam L. Shirer was serving as as one of the only CBS news correspondents in Western Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, located at the perfect place and time to witness¬†firsthand the growth and eventual domination of the Nazis. Reporting from Vienna during the Austrian Anschluss and from Berlin during the early years of World War II, he eventually learned that the Gestapo was gathering evidence of his disobedience over censorship and fled the country, not to return until¬†the Nuremberg trials. Afterwards, back in America and barely a decade after the war’s conclusion, he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany.¬†

Shirer begins at the beginning, the seeds that were sown following Germany’s defeat in World War I. Then, he traces¬†the birth of Adolf Hitler, the creation of his philosophy as memorialized in¬†Mein Kampf, and the establishment of the Nazi Party. Thus, its more than halfway in before we even get to war, but that development is essential to understand the individuals and events that led to its inevitability. By now, plenty of books have been written about the war itself, but Shirer’s has a unique level of detail and blend of contemporary citations with personal observances.

It wasn’t the easiest read with copious footnotes taking sometimes up to half the page. While I flew through the first 700 pages, the last few hundred took weeks. Partially because it finally touched on the Holocaust, a topic that isn’t covered extensively as much as foreshadowed for much of the book, but one that is deeply disturbing to read about so matter-of-factly. Nor does Shirer linger much on the aftermath of the war, probably because his book followed freshly on the heels of it and hasn’t been updated since published in 1960. In this case, that limit on scope is likely for the best.

I hope to read Shirer’s biography next. It’ll be interesting to get a different perspective on his work and biases as well as read further excerpts from his Berlin Diary, published during the war in 1941. For instance, from¬†Rise and Fall, I already know that he’s at least slightly homophobic. Perhaps a product of his time, but I’d caution sensitive readers to be aware that he repeatedly remarks that homosexuality is a perversion, though obviously not to the extent of supporting Nazi persecution.

Regardless of Shirer’s own views, he did write the definitive work on Nazi Germany. Even to this day, I couldn’t find a more thorough source. For those readers interested in WWII history, this is a must read, but one that should be expected¬†to take awhile.

4 Stars


Noelle Hancock’s My Year with Eleanor

My Year with EleanorNewly laid-off celebrity blogger Noelle Hancock had no clue what to with with her life when she abruptly lost her job while vacationing. Returning to New York City, she spent days haunting coffee shops, ostensibly working on applications and actually just trapped in worry about the state of her life. Then one day inspiration struck in the form of a quote she saw by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor was painfully timid as a child, yet her commitment to facing her fears challenged Hancock to live a “Year of Fear” before she turned 30. Hancock chronicles her adventures from fighter pilot fighting to stand up comedy to facing old boyfriends in My Year with Eleanor.

For a journalist, Hancock’s writing wasn’t great, but I blame that more on the fact that she was trying to string together some loose anecdotes into a coherent book. What would’ve been entertaining and inspiring over a series of articles turns repetitive. Numerous chapters in the middle feel like a large stretch to connect with Eleanor, and most of Hancock’s conquered fears miss the point of Eleanor’s wisdom (ex. streaking naked down her hallway and diving with sharks). I also think she could have spent more time serving others as Eleanor did instead of focusing on herself – it came across as self-centered rather than self-improvement. Unfortunately, the one instance where I believe she could’ve done more good for herself, in conquering her sleeping pill addiction, is glossed over.

Coincidentally, I finished¬†My Year With Eleanor¬†just as Hancock’s newest written piece in Cosmopolitan¬†began raising¬†a stir. In it, she discusses how she gave up her $95,000 per year job to live as a bartender in the US Virgin Islands. The article faces the same issues that this book does, namely that she’s quite privileged to be able to live like that. In her book, she doesn’t really work for a year and somehow survives in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Additionally, an investment from her parents help her reach her goal of climbing Kilimanjaro. I’m not saying that she didn’t work hard, but as a Yale-educated upper-middle class individual, she did have a lot of unique opportunities.

I will admit that I find Eleanor Roosevelt quite amazing, and learning more about her efforts to be braver definitely is motivating me to inch outside my comfort zone though I have a long way to go. So good for Hancock for doing the same – I sincerely hope it helped as I empathized with her social anxiety. But this is not the quality of memoir of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project¬†or any of A.J. Jacobs’ annual challenges, which are highly humorous and well-written reads, and you would be better off reading a book wholly about Eleanor if you want a true inspiration.

3 Stars

Weekend Update: Maya and Mindy

I just wanted to give y’all a quick idea of what I’m reading this weekend. Honestly,¬†neither of these felt like they could be a full review so I’m lumping them together in case anyone’s interested in either:

The MayaThe Maya by Michael D. Coe

Guys, there’s like no books about the Maya. Literally this is basically the only one I could find to give me a comprehensive overview of the civilization and¬†all the dirt about the archaeological finds at the most important ruins; however, it reads like a textbook, albeit one from like eighth grade that still has pictures. If you’re at all interested in the topic, Coe may be dry but he is your guy.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

This is a question I’ve asked myself before, and I do like Mindy, who is one of the few Indian-American actors out there. Her book is very colloquial as if you’re gossiping with¬†your friend Mindy over wine and cheese. But unfortunately that’s actually a detriment because it’s all over the place – sometimes funny, other times wtf.


Katie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever: my life (so far) without a dateStarting from the title, Katie Heaney’s¬†Never Have I Ever: My life (so far) without a date¬†got me. As a single woman of approximately the same age as her, I knew I’d relate to her memoir of her own hapless dating experiences.

This is a super-short review because you really have to read it, to be in the mindset, to appreciate it fully. But if you’re anything like me, you will definitely identify with¬†her insights. Heaney tracks her lack of romance from her first crush in elementary school through the post-college present day. As a millennial, I particularly related to her failed attempts at online dating, from the excitement to tedium of creating a profile to the very awkward first date – all experiences that my friends have repeatedly recounted for me.

Like my friends, Heaney’s tend to be the heart of her story of singledom. In particular, her best friend Rylee, whom she refers to as a “lighthouse” (i.e. the type of person whom other people are drawn to), reminded me of a number of friends and acquaintances. Additionally, I (prone to nostalgia) enjoyed her reminiscing about living with other women in a crowded college dorm – I fondly (and sometimes not-so-fondly) bring those stories out at any university reunion, be it with one person over coffee or with a crowd at a tailgate.

While not the most insightful memoir, reading Heaney seems exactly like gossiping with your girlfriends. Sometimes what you really need is an entertaining outsider’s take on the same awkward things you’re going through, a type of literary catharsis, and in those cases, this is the perfect read.

4 Stars