Posts Tagged ‘biography’

Of all the rumors swirling around Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird over the years, the idea that Truman Capote was the book’s real author always bothered me the most. Sure, he was Scout’s pal Dill in the story, but it was always Lee’s story to tell, and anyone who knew anything about Lee and Capote’s friendship and writing styles knew it. What many may not know is that after Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder that became In Cold Blood, she tried writing her own true crime book. As journalist Casey Cep recounts in her non-fiction page-turner Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, digital galley), Lee thought she’d found her subject in September 1977, when she sat unrecognized in a small-town Alabama courtroom similar to the one she described in Mockingbird, drawn there by a case involving multiple murders, insurance fraud, vigilante justice and rumors of voodoo.

“The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. . . The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would happen to the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

Journalist Cep proves a natural storyteller as she excavates both mysteries, mining details on Alabama history, geography and politics in the process. The first part of the book chronicles the story of “The Reverend”  (Lee’s title for the project), who held insurance policies on many of his relatives, five of whom turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. Often suspected and accused of murder, Maxwell was never convicted. He was the prime suspect in his stepdaughter’s murder, but at her funeral a relative took out a gun and shot him three times in the head. Maxwell’s former defense attorney, having just lost his best client, then volunteered to defend his killer. This lawyer, Tom Radney, a progressive Democrat, chose to argue that his new client was not guilty by reason of insanity.

No wonder Lee saw the makings of a book, and she struggled for years to write it, either as fact or possibly even fiction. Cep, who has written about Lee for The New Yorker, provides a well-researched portrait of a complicated, private woman who was close to her family and a small circle of friends but who often felt like an outsider in her hometown, at college and in law school (she dropped out with a semester to go), and in Manhattan, where she wrote Mockingbird and its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. The facts may be familiar, but Lee had many facets that Cep illuminates in engaging fashion. Overall, it’s a sympathetic rendering of the issues she faced at various times, including  writer’s block, alcohol, fame, the death of family members and of Truman Capote.

It’s possible that Lee wrote and discarded some semblance of a manuscript, or maybe even kept it, but no pages have been found beyond Lee’s original research and notes. But don’t think of Furious Hours as the next best thing. It stands on its own as a involving story and fascinating literary mystery.



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Even though I’ve lived in Florida for most of my adult life, I didn’t grow up here. Still, I was lucky enough to have cousins who are natives, so I have more than the usual Florida vacation memories of beach and sun. With my cousins Paulette and Gordon Jr., I enjoyed the free-range, small-town childhood of Central Florida B.D. (before Disney), going barefoot in December, picking oranges in the backyard, pole-fishing in little lakes. For attractions, there were the slopes of Sand Mountain, the parrots at Busch Gardens and waves at the beach, but my favorite part of those treks was stopping at A&W for frosty mugs of root beer.

Yes, I’m waxing nostalgia, but it’s what William McKeen calls “honest nostalgia” in the introduction to  Homegrown in Florida, a collection of “stories (some fact, some fiction) of a vanishing place and a lost time.” There are also song lyrics by John Anderson and a few poems, including Teri Youmans Grimm’s “Miss Senior High Duval County.” Like many of the stories, it mixes the bitter with the sweet, and while it is particular to a time and place, it also has a coming-of-age universality.

A goodly number of the tales are sand-in-our-shoes memories of outdoors adventures. Although Stephen F. Orlando’s “The Other Campout” ends happily with teenage boys cutting up in a waterspout, in Jeff Klinkenberg’s “Nothing I Could Do,” a boys’ golf-course adventure turns into tragedy. Ken Block’s “Riding the Wave” pays homage to surfing and a younger brother’s battle with cancer. But Sherry Lee Alexander remembers the sweetly Southern vibe of Miami of the 1950s-60s in “Seaboard Coast Line” when “we were all still kids in Camelot.”

Allisson Burke Clark, “God Only Knows,” moved to Florida at age 11 and promptly encountered teased hair and iridescent eye makeup courtesy of mature Michelle. “My mother had talked breathlessly about the long growing season down south — we’d have flowers ten months out of the year, she said. Did Florida kids, like hothouse flowers, bloom before the rest of us?”

(Perhaps I should mention here that my cousin Paulette, three years my senior, taught me how to smoke, blowing smoke rings in the orange blossom-scented air. Of course, years later, after I had moved to Florida, she also saw me through quitting.)

Other contributors to the book include quintessential Floridians Carl Hiaasen, Zora Neale Hurston, Tim Dorsey and Tom Petty. The latter recalls “When the King Came to Ocala” (as told to Paul Zollo) and his early enthrallment with Elvis.

Petty also was inspired by Gram Parsons, the subject of Orlando author and TV reporter Bob Kealing’s “Calling Me Home: Gram Parsons and the Roots of Country Rock.” Parson’s contributions to music have long been overshadowed by his “live-fast-die-young,” drug-fueled lifestyle, his fatal overdose at 26, and the weird, failed attempt to steal his body and burn it in the desert.

But while Kealing doesn’t skirt the tabloid stuff, he’s more interested in Parsons’ journey as a muscian, his “own Cosmic American roots, planted deeply within the Georgia red clay and Florida myakka.”

The book itself is a fascinating journey to the past and back again as Kealing revisits the people and places important to Parsons’ career and life, and to Southern rock. Kealing has an entertaining, conversational style that nicely complements his subject, who crammed a whole lot of living into two decades. A new batch of old photographs from the 1960s and ’70s also prove revealing. Then there’s the discography, from The Shilos and the International Submarine Band,  to the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers,  to Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and just Gram Parsons. Ah, he was young and amazing.

Sure, I can get all nostalgic reading this book and hearing “Hickory Wind.” But it’s honest nostalgia.

Open Book: Both Homegrown in Florida and Calling Me Home are published by the University Press of Florida, which sent me review copies. And I’ve known Bill McKeen and Bob Kealing for pretty much as long as I’ve lived in Florida, which is longer now than Gram Parsons’ fleeting life.

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The importance of Ernest Hemingway hasn’t faded in the 50 years since his death. His works still are read and analyzed, his eventful life dissected, his oversized personality discussed, the myth and the man reimagined.

 Award-winning writer Paul Hendrickson (Sons of Mississippi) is quick to say the world doesn’t need another traditional Hemingway biography. So he takes an unconventional tack with Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved, and Lost, 1934-1961, focusing on the last 27 years of the writer’s life. He anchors the engaging narrative of Hemingway riding the waves of fame and fortune — the high tides, the stomach-churning swells, the swirling depths – to Hemingway’s love for his “fishing machine,’’ Pilar.

            Hendrickson describes his mission in a long, entertaining prologue: “So it’s about such ideas as fishing, friendship, and fatherhood, and love of water, and what it means to be masculine in our culture (as that culture is rapidly changing), and the notion of being ‘boatstruck’ . . .and how the deep good in us is often matched only by the perverse bad in us, and – not least — about the damnable way our demons seems to end up always following us.’’

Hendrickson, forgoing the terse, laconic style of Hemingway for his own looping elegance, acknowledges those demons as both arising from Papa’s past (his father’s suicide, for instance) and the flaws in his character. Yes, he could be – and often was – selfish, egotistical, “gratuitously mean.’’ He cheated on his wives, belittled his friends, dealt awkwardly with his sons, especially the third, the troubled Gregory (Gigi).

  But oh, Hemingway could write. Hendrickson does not forgive the great man because of his great talent, but he does show “amid so much ruin, still the beauty,’’ and  how he bravely engaged with life and was often at his best on Pilar, the middle-aged man and the sea.

 Hendrickson interviewed Hemingway’s three sons, read the thousands of letters Papa wrote, and, of course all the books, and he quotes liberally from these sources and others to emphasize Hemingway’s complexities and contradictions. I wasn’t sure I could read another 500-plus pages on Hemingway, but I found Hemingway’s Boat fascinating and revealing. Not as boatstruck as either author, I did skim the complete guide to boat building and Pilar’s specs. Still, in the end, Hendrickson also sent me back to Hemingway’s books and the stories, which is a good thing.

I already had reread Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast in the spring when The Paris Wife, Paula McLain’s best-selling novel came out. Written from the perspective of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, The Paris Wife is a romantic evocation of their meeting and courtship in Chicago in 1920, and then the next five years in Jazz-age Paris among the fabled “Lost Generation.’’

Many of the incidents in the novel – first encounters with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, Ernest’s struggles to claim his own voice, Hadley’s loss on a train of her husband’s manuscripts – were recounted by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, and I suggest a tandem reading.

 Hemingway was a great believer in finding the truth in fiction, and McLain’s sympathetic voicing of Hadley feels authentic. She was passionately in love with her younger husband, but her traditional upbringing and values were no match when the poisonous Pauline, soon to be the second of four Mrs. Hemingways, literally moved in on her marriage. She reluctantly retreated with young son Jack, and, yes, she had regrets, but she also felt that they would always have their Paris. “We got the best of each other.’’  

If you read A Moveable Feast, you’ll know Hemingway felt much the same near the end of his life. In Hemingway’s Boat, Hendrickson writes that it was because Hadley “was his truest love, or at least his truest marriage’’ that Hemingway’s subsequent marriages were doomed from the start. Then again, Hadley didn’t have to compete with Pilar.

Open Book: I read the digital galley of Paul Hendrickson’s Hemingway’s Boat (Knopf), which the publisher provided through NetGalley. I bought a hardcover copy of Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife (Ballantine) so I could present it to my book club. When I couldn’t find my old paperback of  Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, I borrowed a copy from the Orange County Library.

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