Mockingbird Songs

I was introduced to Harper Lee by my mother. She was in the habit of handing me books when I was bored and apples when I was hungry. I was the last of five kids and she had parenting down to a science by the time I arrived. She knew exactly what to do when one of us was underfoot – distract us with a book or give us something to eat. She had loved reading To Kill a Mockingbird and thought it was a good way to get me out of the kitchen, probably away from the cookie jar, for a few hours and she was right. Her book suggestions were always good even though I was usually disappointed by her ‘eat an apple’ idea.

Looking back on my first reading of To Kill a Mockingbird now I wonder if I processed everything that was going on in the book when I first read it. I think that I focused more on the adventures of the kids, wished for a tree house, and wondered what it might be like to have someone like Calpurnia in my life. It was a surprise to find out that there weren’t more books by the same author when I went to look on our local library shelves but it wasn’t until my university years that I thought more about the author’s life.

Following the 1960 publication of her novel and the 1962 film based on it she gave several interviews and was photographed for LIFE magazine and several other publications. In many of these interviews Harper Lee suggested that she was writing another novel (which we can now read as Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015) but as she found it increasingly hard to complete this new work the requests for further interviews were declined and she became known as the ‘reclusive’ author.

The pressure to produce a follow up novel is one theory about why she stayed out of the spotlight but it’s hard to say what really was going on in Harper Lee’s mind because she chose to keep her cards close to her chest where personal details were concerned. The success of To Kill a Mockingbird allowed her the means to do exactly as she wished. Just think about it, a New York Times article published after her death said that over 40 million copies of the book had been sold and she lived frugally throughout her life with one small home she shared with her sister Alice in Monroeville and the same small Manhattan apartment she rented first in 1949 and kept until her death in 2016. It’s clear from her writing that she loved her small town and the people who lived there so why would she ever choose to leave it unless absolutely necessary.

Untitled-1When I read that Wayne Flynt, a history professor from Auburn University, was going to publish letters from his years of friendship with the author I had my name on that holds list as soon as I could. I was checking my library account daily when I knew that the book, Mockingbird Songs : my friendship with Harper Lee, would arrive and I couldn’t wait to get the book home.

Wayne Flynt is well known for his previous books about Southern history, religion and politics and was one of the early editors of the online Encyclopedia of Alabama where you can find a wonderful entry about Harper Lee, members of her family, the area where she grew up and the novel To Kill a Mockingbird. You can check it out online.

Flynt and Nelle (as she signed her letters to him) talked about his work and the early days of the Encyclopedia of Alabama in their letters because they shared so much of their lives through their correspondence. He and his wife became friends with Harper Lee’s sister Louise first and then got to know the author better when Flynt was asked to introduce the author’s achievements at an award’s ceremony. In those written conversations a friendship grows and from 1983 to her death. She and Flynt send news about their health, the things that they are reading, how they feel about politics and world events, and tidbits about family. One of Flynt’s grandchildren is named Harper and Lee is delighted to hear about this little girl’s life in each letter.

Flynt and his family visit with Nelle many times throughout their friendship, in Monroeville and in New York, and each time their relationship deepens. In every chapter of the book he prefaces the letters with some information about how they have been connecting, sometimes through formal events and at other times in her home or at restaurants in town. Their correspondence is lengthy and she is enthusiastic about his publishing efforts but always very humble about the legacy of her own. Although she is constantly aware of her advancing age, and discusses visits to the doctor for health concerns relating to her eyes, her letters are consistently upbeat and filled with paragraphs about what she is reading and looking forward to doing next. If Harper Lee were ever a isolated person it does not come across in these letters, she is busy and happy, she just didn’t choose to share her life with the press.

In 2006 Flynt was asked to write a tribute to his friend for an event in Birmingham to celebrate her lifetime of work on behalf of racial reconciliation. He accepted the assignment and read a speech he had written that he called “Atticus’s Vision of Ourselves” that so captivated Nelle she asked him to read it at her eventual memorial service. His eulogy is included in his book just before the author’s acknowledgements and we can read it with the reassurance that it has Harper Lee’s absolute approval.

Now, it’s the late spring of 2017 and we know that Harper Lee died in Monroeville at age 89 in February of 2016 and she had her wish granted with Wayne Flynt’s reading of that tribute at her funeral. As articles about her life and the importance of her writing poured into newspapers, magazines and online worldwide following her death, I spent some time thinking about Scout, Jem and Atticus. If an author is going to leave us with stories of just one family then I think Harper Lee made the right decision in writing about this one. Maybe we can set aside all of the stories of the ‘reclusive author’ and spend some time instead reading Wayne Flynt’s Mockingbird Songs: my friendship with Harper Lee. You just might find yourself buying a nice pen and sending a letter to someone you care about.

— Penny M.

It’s All About STEAM

We’re thrilled to shout out the best of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, math) books at WPL!

This list highlight books which we feel will inspire the curious minded, plant deep thoughts for the scientific and guide hands-on learning, doing and fun for young and old alike.

And don’t forget to come to STEAM heat! at the Main Library on June 10th.  It’s our signature summer kick-off. Over 25 hands-on, interactive stations. From slime to robotics, trebuchet art and so much more. Free fun for the whole family.

STEAM heat reading list

The First Female Pope

I first came across Woman of God when I put it on hold for a library customer a few months ago, and it immediately piqued my interest. I was intrigued by a plot that was so different from James Patterson’s usual fare. When I saw that I was available as an e-audiobook in the Download Library last week, I figured it was about time that I jumped into my first (!!!) Patterson and Co. book.

This book follows Brigid Fitzgerald and her journey to potentially become the first female pope. The book opens with a short flash forward scene when Brigid is being considered as a papal candidate, then jumps back to the beginning of Brigid’s career as a doctor. From there, it follows Brigid’s different medical jobs, relationships and involvement in the Catholic church. Overall, I enjoyed this book, and the audio presentation of it, but I had a few issues with the way the story was paced.

Let’s begin with the main character, Brigid. I found her to be engaging and worthy of sympathy. I really liked experiencing the story through her perspective. It’s not an easy feat to write a religious character that doesn’t come across pious and holier-than-thou. I really felt for her and the trials that she goes through in the book. There was an honesty to the character that I found appealing and satisfying.

Although Brigid was a compelling character, there were so many other secondary characters that just seemed to exist on the periphery. This was the result of the quick pace of the story. At first, I really enjoyed how quickly the story was moving along; it kept the book from getting boring. However, by the middle of the book, there were so many different characters that seemed to flit in and out of the main character’s life that I found it hard to really get grounded in the story. Plot events happened quickly, so I sometimes felt that I didn’t have enough time to get invested in characters before they encountered tragedy. Since I wasn’t invested, the tragedy often felt glib and melodramatic. That being said, Brigid was a good enough anchor, as the main character, that I could overlook the poorly developed secondary characters.

Before I sign off, I want to spend a little bit of time discussing the audiobook portion of my reading experience. If you’ve ever listened to an audiobook, you’ll know that the quality of the narrator makes a big impact in the enjoyment of the book. Luckily, in this case, I thought Thérèse Plummer, the narrator, was excellent. In the parts of the book where Brigid is grieving, she has a way of making her voice sound so broken and depressed, while still clearly reading the story. Plummer definitely elevated my reading experience of Woman of God.

In the end, Woman of God was an interesting read, but I would have enjoyed hearing more about the political drama surrounding a female pope and stronger secondary characters. If you want to read a story about a woman’s life of self-sacrifice, then you’ll enjoy this book, but if you’re looking for a Vatican thriller, you might want to pass on this title.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

–Jenna H.

Exit West

Sometimes a book comes along with so much hype, a gorgeous cover and a promising plot. Then you read it and it lives up to everything.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is just that book. It is on everyone’s TBR list right now (nerd talk for “To Be Read”) and it’s premise is timely and magical. Two young adults begin a love affair in a country full of war. They need to get away and be safe. Everyone needs to get away. There is secret talk of hidden doors you can walk through and exit into another country, with or without fighting is unknown, but many people are willing to take the risk. The couple talk about finding a door and starting over.

The magical component of this book is subtle and lovely but it is hardly a dream solution. Hamid’s writing however is dream-like and beautiful, even under the duress of the tragedy he describes. He finds and shows the reader so much beauty.  It is a short novel, but one not to rush through. It explores love during times of trouble, losing love and sustaining it.  This is a book that everyone should read, I couldn’t have pushed it into my husband’s hands more quickly when I was finished and if I see you at the library, I’ll be telling you to read it as well.

-Sarah C.

Celebrating Canada’s 150th

How will you celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday?

I’m hoping to visit a national park (free passes!) and maybe take a trip to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in the fall.

Here’s another idea. You can celebrate by sitting in your own home and reading this book, They Desire a Better Country by Lawrence Scanlan.

This books gives brief sketches of 50 recipients of the Order of Canada, which was created in 1967. Since then, almost 7,000 Canadians, across many different fields, have received it.

Some recipients of the Order (like singer Celine Dion or astronaut Chris Hadfield) are well known to most Canadians, and others (like journalist June Callwood or singer Susan Aglukark) have some name recognition. But probably a third of the people in this book are completely unknown to me (architect James K. M. Cheng or scientist David W. Schindler, for example). The overall impression is “wow, Canadians have done some truly amazing things.”

So yes, we Canadians have much reason to celebrate but perhaps we should also reflect on the mistakes we have made along the way – and see what we can do about fixing them.

–Penny D.

SPECIAL EVENT:  Join us at the Main Library for a special live stream of The Walrus Talks: We Deserve a Better Country on Wednesday, May 31st. This session features Margaret Atwood, live from Toronto. Eight prominent panelists will briefly discuss Canada, its future, identity and so much more. Doors will open at 6:45 and the screening will begin promptly at 7:00pm. The talk will last approximately 1.5 hours. Refreshments will be provided after the live stream so participants can mingle and participate in open discussion. The Walrus Talks are presented by the Walrus Foundation in partnership with the Order Of Canada and Canada 150.



An Unlikely Bond

I’ve always been drawn to books set during WWII but after awhile you start to feel that you’ve read it all — and then The Women in the Castle comes along. Jessica Shattuck is a talented storyteller who has woven her plot around the perspective of three widows during the war. These women are very different, not always likable to the reader, but they firmly agree that Hitler’s view of Germany is not their own. Their stories are compelling as they try to keep their families safe and fed during the war and later as they struggle with their guilt, grief and forgiveness.

The story is told via multiple characters and time frames but the plot and writing flows easily. Readers will quickly become invested in these three women as they struggle to pick up the pieces after the assassination attempt on Hitler fails. Times are hard, people are starving, everyone is suspicious of everyone else and yet its during this tumultuous time that an unlikely bond is formed between Marianne, Ania and Benita. Temperaments clash, emotions run high making their new friendships tenuous and when secrets are revealed the women deal with the stress, abuse, deprivations and even collusion in different ways and with varying results.

The strength of this book is in its storytelling, it’s rich characterizations and Shattuck’s focus on the rise of Nazism through the eyes of German citizens. Many people wonder how the German people could allow Hitler to take control and commit such atrocities and I think Shattuck opens the door to that discussion. I found the post-war scenes most illuminating as regular citizens struggled with guilt over their complicity, not acknowledging the horrors around them at the time or not resisting enough. War isn’t always black and white.  It’s scary, confusing and murky at best and while the atrocities committed in the name of Nazism are not condoned, Shattuck shows her readers how regular people could get caught up in the constant rhetoric, deprivation and all-encompassing fear that pervaded Germany at the time.

This is a well-written story shows the strength and resiliency of women during extreme times. I applaud the author’s unique and fresh perspective on a very popular genre and era. This book would be an excellent book club selection.

–Laurie P.


Mother’s Day indulgences

Around these parts, as soon as the weather hits ten degrees, it’s springtime and everyone is out and ready to go.

I’m never quite that keen. I love the sun and the longer days and extra walks with my dog, don’t get me wrong. But I miss the guilt-free time spent reading curled on the couch under a blanket, with that same dog warming my feet and chili bubbling on the stove. Reading without worrying that another weed will pop up in my front garden before I finish the page. I find it hard to give up the time that is quiet and a little more solitary. Yes, I am an introvert.

Then Mother’s Day comes and there is time to indulge, have a cup of tea and read without guilt. The book that I just finished was Hannah Tinti’s The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, and it just happens to be a WPL Featured Title for Spring. It is the story of a father and daughter, but the entire heart of the novel centres on the loss of the daughter’s mother. For the daughter, it is a coming of age story; for the father, after a long life of crime, it’s a story of grief and acceptance. It was gorgeous, the story and the cover, and cannot be missed.

Also read the newest Elizabeth Strout book, Anything is Possible. It is a collection of short stories based on the characters introduced to us in her last novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, which is amazing and is the story of a mother and daughter. If you have never read her books, treat yourself and pick up Olive Kitterage – we also have the HBO miniseries at WPL that they made based on the same book.

You must read Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Just do it, trust me! The first one is called In the Woods. I am not a fan of mysteries in general but these novels are thick and rich in details and character development. I love Robert Galbraith’s (aka JK Rowling) Cormoran Strike mysteries and French’s books are the most similar I’ve found so I’m completely smitten! The books do not have to be read in order but I highly recommend that you do. Each novel is told in the voice of a different detective, both men and women. They are huge books, perfect for holding onto in the bath.

So whether it’s Mother’s Day or not, read and enjoy. The weeds are going to be there regardless and if they truly are keeping you from relaxing, look for these titles (and more) in our AudioBook collection and you can listen while weeding your worries away!

–Sarah C.

Our best Spring picks

Our Spring 2017 Featured Titles are here! These picks are some of the best and brightest of recent publications that we think you should know about.

The fiction selection highlights novels that dig deep into cultural history, untold family stories, wars (past and present), migration and self-discovery.  Like us, you may fall in love with a reluctant criminal named Samuel Hawley and his lovely daughter Loo.

The non-fiction line up is a gorgeous selection of must have titles for the curious reader: new recipes, an investigation into the complexity of  modern relationships and loneliness, immigration and assimilation, physics for the layperson, work and weekend culture, and the rags to riches story of Vij and his suitcases of spices.

Have you read some of these picks? Let us know what you think!





Happy Birthday, Alice!

I try not to overuse the phrase “falling down the rabbit hole” because I want to save it for things that are truly magical, as I remember my early reading of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland to have been.  It seems like I see that phrase, or versions of it, used in articles and tweets every week or two in reference to a person who finds themselves lost as they look at recipes on the Internet or try to shop for parts for their lawn mower and then start looking at anything but lawnmower parts.  If I am going to use words that usually refer to something as enchanting as Alice’s choice to follow a rabbit carrying a pocket watch then I won’t be describing my 10 minute distraction with websites describing the origins of Argyle socks.  That’s not falling down the rabbit hole to me, that is procrastination or avoiding my real life chores of dish washing or getting the laundry folded.

I was thinking about rabbit holes recently when I looked at the calendar and saw that we were getting close to May 4th, the birthday of Alice Liddell, the 10-year old girl who asked Lewis Carroll to tell her a story as they rowed together one lovely afternoon way back in 1865.  It started out as a way to entertain his young friend and became the adventure that has inspired music, theatre, fashion, countless retellings and so many mugs in my kitchen cupboards.  I’ve always felt like the remarkable things that he included in his story were perfect for saying aloud and I loved reading them to our girls.  Even though the “rabbit hole” phrase has become a little too popular for my liking I will always been a fan of the idea that Alice made the choice to follow that white rabbit out of sheer curiosity and, as she fell down the hole, had time to think of so many things, especially her lovely cat Dinah.

If you search in the WPL catalogue for the words “alice’s adventures in wonderland” you will find that we have so many wonderful books – some appropriate for children, many for teens and some others for adults.  In 2015 a Canadian author published Alice’s adventures in Wonderland decoded and it contains annotations which provide behind-the-scenes information about Alice, Lewis Carroll and the Victorian world that they lived in.  It has gorgeous full-colour illustrations and will keep you interested for days and days.  I’ve checked this one out more than once just for the pleasure of reading the text along with the insights that author David Day provides.  If you find yourself ‘curiouser and curiouser’ about Alice this might be the place to start.

Another ‘Alice-ish’ favourite on our shelves is a treat of historical fiction by Melanie Benjamin called Alice I have beenIn her novel she has Alice Liddell as an 80-year old looking back on the life that was forever changed by being the subject of Lewis Carroll’s famous story.  The author brings to life the iconic moments spent in the rowboat as she asked him to tell her a story and shares what she imagines Alice was like as a little girl, a young married woman and as she finds happiness in her later years.  It’s this author’s idea of what Alice Liddell’s life might have been like, weaving together the facts that she found with a heaping amount of her own fancy, and she shares her departure from facts in the final pages of the book.  She also suggests further reading for anyone who would like to learn more about the Liddell family and Lewis Carroll.

We also have some terrific biographies of Lewis Carroll here in the collection, one favourite from 2008 is Lewis Carroll in numberland : his fantastical mathematical logical life.  The author focuses on Carroll’s life as a mathematician and provides insight into the time he spent at Oxford. You can find stories here about his incredible sense of humour, his work as a mathematics professor and his interest in photography. If you would like to see some of the photographs he took of Alice and her sisters one of my favourite sites for this (and so many other fascinating topics) is Maria Popova’s brainpickings. You can see a short article she has written about Alice Liddell and, quite possibly, find yourself falling down a true rabbit hole.  You might want to take a snack along.  I seem to remember that Alice picked up that marmalade jar as she fell and was disappointed to find it empty.

– Penny M.



Come join the conversation

Please join us for a book club conversation at any of our meetings. No need to sign up – you can just drop in!

The Hero’s Walk by Anita Rau Badami

Monday, May 8th 2017 – 7:00pm – Main Library Auditorium

The only thing Sripathi Rao has been proud of is his daughter, Maya, but he cut off ties with her when she married a fellow student at her American university. When Maya and her husband are killed in a car crash, Sripathi is left with his regrets and Maya’s seven-year-old daughter, Nandana.  It’s a second shot at a life that’s been disappointing so far, but to succeed he must become a better parent than he was to his own daughter, and support his young charge as she struggles to adjust to life in a small town in India.

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Thursday, May 18th 2017 – 1:30pm – Main Library Boardroom

Travel to Kenya in the 1920s, where the beautiful young horse trainer, adventurer and aviator Beryl Markham tells the story of her life among the glamorous and decadent circle of British expats living in colonial East Africa – and the complicated love triangle she shared with the white hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa. Brought to Kenya as a small child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised both by her father – a racehorse trainer – and the native Kipsigis tribe on her father’s land. Her unconventional upbringing transforms her into a daring young woman, with a love of all things wild, but everything she knows and trusts dissolves when her father’s farm goes bankrupt. Reeling from the scandal and heartbreak, Beryl is catapulted into a disastrous marriage at the age of 16. Finally she makes the courageous decision to break free, forging her own path as a horse trainer and shocking high society in the process. The British colony has never seen a woman as determined and fiery as Beryl. Before long, she catches the eye of the fascinating and bohemian Happy Valley set, including writer Karen Blixen and her lover Denys Finch Hatton, who will later be immortalized in Blixen’s memoir, Out of Africa. The three become embroiled in a complex triangle that changes the course of Beryl’s life, setting tragedy in motion while awakening her to her truest self and her fate: to fly.

You can find more information about WPL Book Clubs here or contact Christine Brown at 519-886-1310 ext. 146.