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

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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

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

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and StoriesMany of you have likely heard the story of Marina Keegan: Just 5 days after graduating magna cum laude from Yale University, she was killed in a car-crash, a tragic end to a rising star who had a play about to be produced in the New York Fringe Festival and a waiting job at the New Yorker.¬†In the aftermath, her final piece for the¬†Yale Daily News,¬†titled “The Opposite of Loneliness, went viral.

I first read the titular essay “The Opposite of Loneliness” in those few days after Marina’s passing. At that time, mere¬†weeks¬†after graduating from college myself, it was instantly so relatable to¬†me.¬†This¬†was the feeling myself and my friends had tried to verbalize over the last few weeks. Her sentiment, “We‚Äôre so young. We can‚Äôt, we MUST not lose this sense of possibility because in the end, it‚Äôs all we have” has lingered¬†with me since.

Sad and touching is her constant preoccupation with mortality in these works: “We‚Äôre so young. We‚Äôre twenty-two years old. We have so much time.” But she didn’t, nor did many of her characters. From “Challenger Deep”s crew in a drowned, lost submarine to “Why We Care About Whales” about our concern for animal life-cycles over man’s, she examines the human relationship with death. Most haunting is Marina’s piece “Cold Pastoral”¬†about a girl who’s dealing with the death of her college sort-of-boyfriend, later to be eerily mirrored in her own life.

Even more poignant perhaps was the foreword by Marina’s old professor, Anne Fadiman, where she discusses Marina’s possibility – who she was as a person and how her personality impacted her friends and family, and would’ve impacted the world if she had lived. I’m glad that they had an opportunity to work through their grief by compiling these works, even if they weren’t as final as Marina herself might have¬†wanted them to be.

Marina clearly had a privileged upbringing, so much of her fiction and non-fiction alike seem to be drawn from that experience. Unfortunately, that makes many¬†characters sound like her instead of developing disparate voices. I had to remind myself whether I was reading the fiction or non-fiction sections at times. Also, because I¬†don’t typically¬†read short stories so I am unfavorably and unfairly comparing these works to novels, I found the plot structures to be a bit loose and holey, making me feel irritatingly obtuse¬†(“The Ingenue” or “Baggage Claim”).

Her professor stated, “”Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.” But truthfully, my perceptions are strongly colored by the solitary fact that this was a budding author who could’ve been great, who was my contemporary but is not – stagnant at 22 as myself and her classmates continue to develop and grow and change. Other reviewers have called her “the voice of her generation,” an accolade I don’t disagree with, yet her generation has moved on without her.

I’ve struggled with how to rate this, thinking would I have rated it differently if she was still alive? (To add on – would it even have been published if she was still alive? Would I have read it if she was still alive?) I can’t answer these questions, but I finally decided on

3.5 Stars

Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart

Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless CompassionDespite 20 years of education at religiously-affiliated institutions, this is the kind of book I shy away from because I hate being beaten over the head with religion. But it came highly recommended by one of my best friends, who is a practicing Catholic and who had heard the author speak about his experiences on a previous occasion and been inspired.

Gregory Boyle has spent the last few decades working as a pastor in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the United States. Located in Los Angeles, it houses numerous gangs and sees innumerable instances of violence each year. Boyle created Homeboy Industries to gainfully employ rehabilitated ex-gang members, providing jobs, training, tattoo removal, and other support to help them move beyond gang life. In Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, he chronicles his struggle to build the organization and guide the neighborhood into loving thy neighbor.

I didn’t know what to expect when I started as my friend said it was surprisingly humorous. I’m uncertain if I can agree with that – Boyle did have some amusing anecdotes, such as when he took a fresh-out-of-jail kid to get new clothes at JC Penny or when he brought a group of ex-cons to the White House, but each chapter had at least one death. Boyle would recount the story of a young man who turned up to improve his circumstances, only to note that mere weeks later that individual was murdered in a gang-related incident. While it was humbling that Boyle could maintain such optimism in the face of such adversity, I personally felt overcome with the futility of it all while reading. Although it’s obvious that he and his organization make a huge impact, it’s clearly not enough to overcome the problems that the barrios face today. Yet his all-encompassing compassion gave me hope for the future.

I appreciated Boyle’s attempts to peel back the skin and expose the person behind the tattoos. I think most of us are fairly judgmental of gang members, assuming that the characters are as nasty as the exteriors, but he really showed the humanity of these scary looking guys. He clearly wanted to establish empathy, a connection or sense of kinship between reader and gang member, but it was also frightening how a gang member could be joking around with him one minute, then next he’ll hear that they viciously attacked another resident he knew.

The book is unfortunately rather disjointed. I liked that there was a chapter exploring the origins of his mission and development of his organization as well as another explaining his route to joining the Jesuits. However, the majority of the book was a serious of strung-together stories and words of wisdom, which for me was an ineffectual writing technique. In addition to the frequent redemption-death trajectories, this made for a fairly repetitious narrative. The other major¬†negative was the copious use of gang jargon and Spanish words. The oft-used term “homie”, though descriptive and apt, was grating after awhile and I wish I had a Spanish-English dictionary to translate his meaning sometimes as he peppered the texts with Spanish slang. I can imagine most of his audience, the segment not comprised of Hispanic “homies”, would be thrown.

This book is heavily spiritual. It’s not an easy read in any sense, but I would read it if you’re looking for an inspirational and informative story about one man who is making a significant difference in an underprivileged community. While I don’t share it, his faith moved me, and this book made me more appreciative of my existence.

3 Stars

(Note: I am extremely conflicted about this rating, but this is a book blog, and as a book it didn’t completely work for me. However, I deeply admire the work being done by Fr. Boyle and I know I’ll be telling people about how amazingly effective Homeboy Industries is. So I would encourage you to learn more, spread the word, and even make a donation if you can at¬†http://www.homeboyindustries.org/. All proceeds from the sale of the book also go directly to the organization.)