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.

Embracing Change

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You have to embrace change if you work in a public library.  We see change every day – new books on the shelves through weekly deliveries, daily updates to the magazine and newspaper shelves and wonderful new faces coming in to sign up for library cards.  It’s one of the best parts of working here.  I also like that we rely on routine and I do gravitate towards that.  I enjoy the observance of tradition as much as the next gal.  I so look forward to the reappearance of holidays like Canada Day, Oktoberfest and our neighbour’s festive Fourth of July – parades, I just love parades.   Somehow though, I just can’t seem to muster much enthusiasm for the upcoming U.S. inauguration day.  I am regretting this because they put on a great show with opera singers, fabulous musicians, that nice walk down Pennsylvania Avenue with cheering crowds and many waving flags.  So, to make up for what I will be missing this year I have put the Waterloo Public Library’s catalogue to work for me on a list of books and music.

So, first I thought of some inspiring tunes I would want to listen to.  I started with the classics.  I went with the original “JT” and found James Taylor’s 1970 album Sweet Baby James so that I could enjoy a little bit of “Carolina on my mind”, “Country road” and “Fire and rain”.  Nothing better really.  Knowing that I would be feeling a little low after those soulful tunes I decided to play myself something uplifting like Stevie Wonder or Aretha Franklin.  We have a fantastic CD called The essential Aretha Franklin which is a double disc with all of the most beautiful tracks, just clicking from one to the next is a treat, and it can really get you up out of your chair and dancing.

I also felt like I needed a bit of pomp and circumstance in planning my own inaugural music list and decided to step away from R&B and folk singers.  I went with Copland’s “Appalachian spring” and I hit search and found that we have so many lovely versions of this on our shelves.  In fact, we have a great recording by the Lincoln Centre’s own Chamber Music Society that they recorded in a historic site in Kentucky.  According to their web site they trek out to this barn every year at Memorial Day and play a few concerts there.  I don’t have a ‘bucket list’ exactly but this just might go on my list of things to attend someday.  How cool must that be to catch?  Seeing all of those world-class musicians in a Shaker barn?  Count me in.

All of the best celebrations in the U.S. capitol involve some military melodies and I was aching to hear a bit of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or something like that so with a quick search on our faithful catalogue I found my best hit so far.  A CD called God bless America which has the Boston Pops with Arthur Fiedler conducting, Leontyne Price, Kate Smith, Harry Belafonte and Perry Como!  It’s just like diving into my mother’s record collection all at once and if you take a glance at the list of songs on this CD it is jam-packed with U.S. patriotic tunes perfect for my home-based inaugural celebration or any other day I just feel like singing along.

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I didn’t want to just listen to music with my personal inauguration celebration so I did a little poking around for something to read.  An easy pick for me was to re-read Barack Obama’s book Dreams from my father: a story of race and inheritance.  Following his farewell speech I felt like I wanted to remember the early years when he worked so hard as a community organizer.  When he asked people to “show up, dive in, stay at it” it made me think I should read those pages again for inspiration.  President Obama was a big fan of reading himself and was called the “Reader-in-Chief” for all that he did to support literacy during his eight years; he published his own reading lists, visited local bookstores, read to thousands of kids and quoted To kill a mockingbird in his farewell speech.  How cool is that?  I’ll definitely return to some favourite chapters while I listen to my music.

For one more reading choice it seemed like it might be worth it to return to the beginning of U.S. presidential history and check out Ron Chernow’s excellent biography of George Washington to get a feel for how the first president approached his time in office.  Surely in 904 pages there has to be more to learn than what I absorbed in my high school American history classes.  In Washington : a life he presents a portrait of a man who is a “celebrated horseman, elegant dancer and tireless hunter”.  I wonder if those words are on a plaque somewhere in Mount Veronn?   If nothing else reading this book will allow me to listen to some of my favourite songs from the Broadway musical Hamilton where they reference George Washington.  It might be hard to listen to a few of those songs right now, especially “One last time”.  If you haven’t heard Chris Jackson’s voice as he sings about his last moments as America’s first president it is so worth a listen.

I’m not sure what I will choose for the last song of my little inaugural party but I will definitely lift my teacup and wish our neighbours well.  After that I will click on the WPL catalogue and plan my next book celebration – maybe Valentine’s Day?  Groundhog day?  I know that the WPL catalogue will provide me with great options.  Maybe I will expand my search this time and include recipes.  Delicious.

– Penny M.

What I Discovered While Browsing

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I’m not a big fan of shopping for ‘fun’.  Browsing the stores, just looking at things, is not fun for me: unless it can be browsing for books.  I like browsing even more when those books are on the shelf in the library.  The pressure is off when they are library books because my investment is so small.  I’m not spending any money.  I’m only ‘spending’ the time it takes me to get to the library, find them on the shelves and read a few pages before I decide to continue through to the end.  If I decide to abandon ship and return the book without getting to the end, it’s my secret.  I love it.

In the past few weeks I have found the most interesting books at the library just by wandering through the shelves while I wait for my daughter to finish up her volunteering shifts at the Summer Reading Club desk.  One of the books called out to me when I looked at the spine.  I saw the words ‘life of the party’ and was hooked.  The complete title is The life of the party: the remarkable story of how Brownie Wise built, and lost, a Tupperware party empire and the nugget of the story is right there in the title.  Ms. Wise was an incredible woman who started working as a door-to-door salesperson in the 1950s to support her son.  Through an amazing work ethic, incredible charm and supreme attention to detail, she helped to create the success story of the worldwide brand Tupperware.  Unfortunately she and founder Earl Tupper had a difficult working relationship which led him to fire her and wipe all traces of her devotion to the brand from Tupperware’s history but that is part of what makes this one a page turner.  How did this all happen?  It’s a wonderful snapshot of this time in American history, a fly-on-the wall story of an entrepreneur who was the first woman to be on the cover of Businessweek and a chance to be inspired by a determined trailblazer who put herself into every element of her work.  It wasn’t exactly the party planning guide I thought it would be but, it’s truly fascinating reading.

 

Another walk by the Non-Fiction shelf yielded a recent Canadian memoir, Fallen: a trauma, a marriage and the transformative power of music, by Kara Stanley.  She is a writer living on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast who has woven current research into brain and spinal cord injuries with the story of her husband’s life-threatening injury from a fall at a construction site.  She begins their story talking about a trip to the grocery store where she is indulging her husband’s fondness for an expensive kind of cheese.  She knows that the cost is high but she feels she can stretch their family budget for him on this trip.  She is a writer and he is a musician who also works as a carpenter and they have a teen son who is away at a soccer camp.  While she shops she is thinking about how fortunate their family is and she buys him a block of this delicious cheese.  The beauty of the language she uses in these first paragraphs sweeps you right into their romance.  When Kara introduces you to the horror of Simon falling from scaffolding two stories down to a tile floor below it’s an instant shock to your system so from the moment she arrives in the intensive care ward to wait for news from his team of specialists you feel like you are right there with her.  She has drawn you in with her careful sentences.  Kara, Simon and their son Eli are supported by a loving group of family, friends and neighbours and she alternates between sharing the story of their friendships and the technical language of the medical approach being taken.  Once I had the book in my hands I almost couldn’t stop reading it but I would have passed it by if not for the subtle style of the cover design.  The broken fifth line in the staff caught my eye and made me wonder how the author was going to talk about the ‘healing power of music’.  It’s quite a force as music has an important part in their love and Simon’s life and the book is worth reading to find out more.  So many of the songs they talk about will be familiar, it’s like you have a soundtrack running through your mind as you read.

I found a much lighter read, something for the beach or cottage, on the Fiction shelves.  The cover had a distinct Audrey Hepburn look to it in bright pink with black and I just could not resist taking it home.  It’s called Nine women, one dress (although I keep telling people that the title is ‘one dress, nine women’  but I end up finding it in the catalogue anyway) and it’s a debut novel by a writer from the Huffington Post.  She lives in New York City which won’t surprise you when you read this book because it gives off that vibe instantly, like you are walking the city streets and riding the subway with the characters, and each chapter introduces you to a different person who comes into contact with the dress.  It’s not just any dress, it’s the LBD of the season!  It’s the dress that every model wants to wear and we all get to be front and centre as the dress walks down the catwalk for the first time, meet the veteran of the New York fashion scene who cut out the pattern to make it (he is my favourite character), several women who wear it for special occasions, a private detective who is investigating a case that involves the dress, one behind-the-scenes Broadway scandal and more than one romance.  It’s light but never silly and seems like a Garry Marshall film but I think that is charming.  I loved the book and if I found this dress in a store I might even wear it but… I don’t really like shopping.  Except for books.  At my local public library.

– – Penny M.

What to Read Next? We can help!

 

 

Recently I was waiting for a movie to start on our TV and I noticed an option that said something like “if you liked ____________ you might like ______________” and it reminded me of so many services that we see with a similar line.  It seems like everyone is offering to tell us about something else we might like while here in the library we’ve been doing this for years.  We can help you find books, DVDs, and music to suit any mood or need and we can do this magic for customers of all ages.  Kids, teens, and adults come here to ask us for help in finding material that helps them through home improvement projects, getting through long days when they have a sick toddler, large print material for a grandmother who has failing sight, or action movies for a friend who just broke up with his girlfriend.. and we can find them all.

We have the things that people need to get them through tough times and make good times even better, like the best audiobook choice for a 5-year old, a teen and two parents to enjoy on the drive to the cottage, the nicest novels to read on a long flight to Japan, music for an Oktoberfest party, inspiring quotes to use in a retirement speech, and recipes for a wedding shower brunch.  It’s all here on our shelves and staff have the experience, databases, and passion to sift through those shelves to help you find exactly what you are looking for.

Sometimes customers come to us with very specific requests and we have to dig really deep.  These are the queries that we love the best and occasionally share between staff members as it will be a question that takes the knowledge of more than one person to crack these tough cases.  It’s almost like we need a deerstalker cap to find the best answer but we are determined to find it.  When someone comes in, approaches the desk, and says “I’ve had a really long week and need _________ for the weekend” and we sort through all of the books we know, really dust off the cobwebs of memory and come up with 2 or 3 great choices for that customer to take home so they forget about their hard week; that is the most satisfying query to answer.

Often the things we suggest are ones we have read or watched, sometimes they are books we have read on a blog post, or we know it from the attention it has been receiving in the news.  We know who writes books that can make you cry or those that can always make you laugh and sometimes that is exactly the type of book a customer needs for a particular day.  I think that one of the best parts of our work and what is really missing from the sentence “if you liked ____________ you might like ______________” is that there is no follow up available.  If a customer isn’t content with the first list of books we suggest we can always go back to find more or delve deeper into the question.

Let’s try it.  Let’s say you asked us for a fabulous book that featured a lighthouse because you were in the mood for something nautical.  We might give you The light between  oceans from 2012.  It hasn’t stayed on the shelf for more than a week since it was published and has been a steady book club favourite.  It’s the story of an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife who find a baby in a boat and raise it as their own.

What if you like books about beekeepers (and, really, who doesn’t?) then we could find you Hannah Reed’s sensational cozy mystery series about Story Fischer and her quaint little town.  Or, The wedding bees which is about a New York City beekeeper who has beehives in her rooftop garden.  We have a nice selection of books that feature beekeepers as main characters and you could spend a fair bit of your summer learning about the life of an apiarist.  Maybe you would even venture to our Non-Fiction shelves and learn more about bees and how to attract them to your garden.

Thinking about honey naturally leads a reader to thoughts of cooking and baking and if you were to search our shelves for books about those topics you would be reading non-stop for months.  A quick trip through my memory makes me think of Ruth Reichl’s absolutely perfect novel Delicious!, or a terrific behind-the-scenes look into running a restaurant through the eyes of three brothers in Bread & butter from 2014.  Wonderful novels that feature bakers, chefs and people who cook are on the shelves here just waiting to be enjoyed.

Now, what if you were in the mood for a book that prominently featured a lighthouse, a beekeeper and a baker?  Where would you go to find this kind of lighthearted, entertaining read?  Not to some automated service on the Internet, you would come right here to the Waterloo Public Library, of course.  We have great suggestions for you, and many more, because if you liked Summer at little Beach Street bakery (which just happens to feature a baker, a lighthouse and a beekeeper) we know what else you might like.  It’s what we do best.

Penny M.

 

Hamilton

What we’re listening to in our house right now is actually what we are listening to in our house and in our cars because we listen to the same thing all the time right now – the soundtrack of the Broadway musical Hamilton: An American Musical.

I did this a lot when when I was a kid and would visit the music collection in the Main Library in Hamilton to bring home my favourites to play over and over but I never imagined it would happen to my own family. I know that my father was a little tired of hearing me sing “I Like to be in America” (West Side Story), and disagreed when I sang “It’s the Hard Knock life” (Annie) because it clearly wasn’t, and probably wanted me to find out how I could “solve a problem like Maria” (The Sound of Music) sooner, rather than later.

As for our family getting tired of singing about the scrappy American founding father, Alexander Hamilton, I don’t think I need to rush things. There are soulful ballads, jazz, R&B, a smattering of old fashioned Tin Pan Alley stuff, gorgeous show tunes with the full cast singing with all their heart (like when you sing along in your car at a stoplight and the person next to you tries not to look), and some truly amazing hip-hop. It doesn’t matter which track we play – they are all ‘good ones’.

I really do think that ball of sunshine, Lin Manuel-Miranda, is outstanding. His voice on the soundtrack, which is all we have to go by right now until he is back onstage performing the title role and we are lucky enough to secure tickets, is just superb. From the lightning quick cabinet room rap battles to the poignant lullaby he sings to his newborn son I just don’t feel like it is possible to tire of his voice. He plays the part of Alexander Hamilton to perfection from earnest aide de camp, attractive suitor to Elizabeth Schuyler, uncompromising lawyer and heartbroken father. The first time we listened to the soundtrack from beginning to end I found myself weeping in our kitchen. Twice. I won’t say what caused my outburst because I don’t want to spoil it for you, but even if you know the details of Alexander Hamilton’s death (this isn’t a spoiler as his birth and death dates are well known – 1755-1804) you will be moved by Lin Manuel-Miranda’s voice in the final moments of the musical.

Manuel-Miranda’s writing voice is just as wonderful as his singing voice. We are always talking about the way he is able to make us laugh and think as we enjoy the songs. I have said to our kids that if anyone at our house ever fails an exam which involves this period of American history there will be a severe punishment because by now they should have internalized it all. He lays out the basics of the significant battles, dates and the big names like Washington, Yorktown, King George III, Lafayette, Jefferson and hits the high notes with the writing of the American constitution but it is so clever that every few moments you can’t help but be amazed by the genius of the writing. It’s like he is channeling the lyrical brilliance of Sondheim, Gilbert & Sullivan, Rodgers & Hammerstein with musical influences coming from every genre. It’s magical. It makes you snap your fingers and want to dance along, try to rap as fast as they do (only when my kids aren’t looking).

Alexander Hamilton lived for less than 50 years but his impact on their country was incredible – to say he was an American founding father really isn’t enough – and it was a chance encounter with a book* (!) that Lin Manuel-Miranda read on vacation that led him to start thinking about setting this extraordinary story to music. I’m so glad that he did. I can wash my dishes so much more enthusiastically when I am listening to something like “Guns and Ships” where Aaron Burr says:

How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower
Somehow defeat a global superpower?
How do we emerge victorious from the quagmire?
Leave the battlefield waving Betsy Ross’ flag higher?
Yo. Turns out we have a secret weapon!
An immigrant you know and love who’s unafraid to step in!
He’s constantly confusin’, confoundin’ the British henchmen
Ev’ryone give it up for America’s favourite fighting Frenchman!

And the entire company sings back with an enthusiastic:

Lafayette!

It’s a sensational use of language and each member of the cast does it perfectly. Their enunciation knocks my socks off every time and, when I was a kid I would lift the needle off of the record carefully and place it back to re-listen to try and figure out the lyrics but today you can go online and see endless analysis of each word, find the actors and super-fans on Twitter and Instagram to see minute-by-minute reviews as the cast prepares for performances. It’s a rabbit hole that I find myself enjoying because they seem as enthusiastic about the beauty of the music as the long list of people who have seen their show or are waiting for tickets. In the meantime we have the next best thing right here on the shelves here at WPL. Well, not exactly on the shelf because, well, it will probably be checked out. We’re talking about the music of Hamilton: An American Musical here, you know. It’s a Broadway sensation and you get to keep it for 3 weeks once you sign it out and customers do not bring it back early. They can’t. They are so busy listening to it in their cars and in their kitchens. They are listening to it non-stop.

— Penny M.

* the book that Lin Manuel-Miranda read and was so captivated by was Ron Chernow’s extremely well-reviewed Alexander Hamilton, from 2004, which we also have available here at the Waterloo Public Library.