Kitchens of the Great Midwest

…  A novel by J Ryan Stradal

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson

Kitchens of the Great MidwestIf Eva Thorvald—whose life we follow (more or less) from the time she’s born—ever prepares your food, rest assured it will taste exquisitely unlike anything you’ve ever eaten before. In Eva’s skillful hands, even the most mundane dishes are good enough to set your taste buds singing like choruses of cartoon angels.

A feted chef, her sporadic pop-up supper club—started when she was just 20 years old—boasts long waiting lists and stratospheric ticket prices.

She’s the Taylor Swift of the stove-top and, among food snobs, almost as influential.

But it wasn’t always that way. Eva’s childhood meals were more fish sticks and frozen peas than gourmet fare.

Brought up by her Aunt Fiona and Uncle Jarl, Eva doesn’t remember Jarl’s big brother Lars, a chef who everyone said was a legend in the kitchen. He died of a heart attack a few months after she was born.

No matter, unbeknown to the young woman her facility with food was probably written in her DNA. Her biological father spent weeks before her birth plotting a menu for his daughter’s first months. In deference to her toothless state, week one included such tasty treats as guacamole, pureed prunes and applesauce.

As fate would have it, the only memorable edibles in Eva’s childhood were the red hot chile peppers she grew and loved. A misfit at school, she even used them to get her own back on the bullies, concocting something that, once eaten, they would never forget. The tempting churro bites she generously handed out on her 11th birthday were enhanced with the aid of an eyedropper, some scorching off-the-Scoville-chart chocolate habanero chile powder, and a hot infusion chile oil (recipe thoughtfully supplied).

Happily, the chile oil is not the only recipe in the book.  From classics such as Caesar Salad—done Eva’s way without anchovies and cheese, just like creator Caesar Cardini’s 1920s original—and French Onion Soup, to Mississippi Mud Bars and Resurrection Rolls, they’re scattered throughout, as befits any foodie novel worth its salt.

Up front, in the acknowledgments, the author gives: “Very special thanks to my great-grandmother Lois Bly Johnson’s church, First Lutheran Church of Hunter, North Dakota, and all of the contributors to the 1984 edition of the First Lutheran Church Women cookbook, on which five of the recipes in this novel are based.”

No prizes for guessing which ones they are.

Eva’s magical way with food notwithstanding, I found her personality flat as a pancake.

Not so some of the book’s other characters, such as Pat Prager, a God-fearing, nosey neighbour busybody. Forget all that skinny-malinky sophisticated supper club fare; I’ll take some of her artery-clogging bars—sweet and tart lemon; rich and heavy peanut butter and chocolate—any day of the week (recipes, again, thoughtfully supplied.)

Will I be making any of Pat’s cholesterol-laden concoctions myself? Bet your sweet cinnamon roll I will.

(Kitchens of the Great Midwest: A novel by J Ryan Stradal is published by Pamela Dorman Books)

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Colour me surprised

Unicorns Are JerksCLOSE the curtains and crack out the crayons – colouring-in for grown-ups is on its way. Why the closed curtains? Well, you probably wouldn’t want the neighbours to see what you’re doing, would you?

I first came across the phenomenon a couple of months ago after discovering that specially designed adult colouring-in books were selling up a storm in America.

“Hmmm,” thought I, “this looks interesting … chances are high it’ll hit our own shores soon,” and put it on the backburner. I’ve been digging around the subject on-and-off ever since, planning to write about the topic at a later stage. Now, to my extreme annoyance, it’s gone mainstream, with no less an august publication than The New York Times devoting a full feature to the offbeat “genre”.

The reason for the sudden interest? More than 1-million sales worldwide of Scottish artist Johanna Basford’s  Secret Garden, “a 96-page collection of elaborate black-and-white ink drawings of flowers, leaves, trees and birds”.

According to the US newspaper, it recently topping Amazon’s best-seller list, racing ahead of even To Kill A Mockingbird author Harper Lee’s briskly selling, controversial and heavily publicised new novel Go Set a Watchman.

“People are really excited to do something analogue and creative at a time when we’re all so overwhelmed by screens and the internet,” the illustrator told the paper. “And colouring is not as scary as a blank sheet of paper or canvas.”

Inevitably, several “serious” publishing houses are jumping on the bandwagon with such titles as Splendid Cities: Color Your Way to Calm already published. More are apparently waiting in the wings.

It’s probably a good job the New York Times didn’t dig as deeply as I did in researching the phenomenon – their readers may well have been shocked by some of the other titles on offer. Talk about putting the “adult” into “grown-up”!

Suffice to say The Fetish Coloring Book, “containing equal amounts of both naked men and women”, doesn’t really need an explanation.

“It will make you laugh and blush,” says the online bookseller, adding: “It is a remarkable way to say ‘I love you’ on grandma’s birthday, your friend’s birthday, your mother’s birthday, your colleague’s birthday, and so on, and so on.”

I can’t imagine what mom and grandma would have to say about that!

And it’s only one of many rude versions.

Less offensive, perhaps, but equally odd is Fat Ladies in Spaaaaace, “a body-positive colouring book – there’s a whole universe of body types out there, and they all deserve to be represented”.

If you don’t fancy any of those, you can colour-in just about everything else, from Game of Thrones to the Dia De Los Muertos: Day of the Dead and Sugar Skull Coloring Book to Unicorns Are Jerks – “a colouring book exposing the cold, hard, sparkly truth”.

Whatever you do, don’t scoff at the idea – give it a decade or two and your crayoning efforts might even be sold as art. Remember those painting-by-numbers abominations (completed versions featuring everything from puppy dogs to crying children are still to be found on junk shop walls)? Not only did a 1950s effort, featuring florid pink flamingos, sell recently for almost R1,500, it was even, said the seller, signed by the artist!

That’s really pushing it, I reckon (although, to be fair, whoever filled the garish picture in did manage to stay inside the lines!). – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)

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Urn-ing eternal life

Sunlight on ivy (2)I’M NOT given to thinking about my own demise very often – far too depressing, I find – but when I do, I try to focus on the drama of my farewell, stage manage it in advance, as it were. (Way in advance, I hope.)

There was a time, for example – quite a long period of time, in fact – when I rather fancied my farewell should take the form of a high-kicking parade, with a special performance by a troupe of dancing boys to accompany my shuffle off this mortal coil in all the showbiz style I was used to at the time. I’d probably been involved in one too many Extravaganzas. The fact I was great friends with the show’s flamboyant feather master probably had something to do with the fantasy, too.

Implicit, of course, was the fervent hope I’d be miraculously able to watch all the fun from a nearby cloud, or some such wafty spot. And a show like that really wouldn’t be such a hardship for at least some of my grieving buddies to attend, either, would it?

As well as the dancing boys, I also wanted to take a letter with me into the afterlife from my ex-boss explaining that the little white lies I’d told in the course of my job were all at her behest.

The beloved wasn’t too keen on the idea of a parade – pooh-poohed it, in fact – though if I’d specified feathered dancing girls he’d probably have felt a little differently about it. But, in any case, I’d lost touch with the feather master and his partner when they’d gone to live in Hong Kong, so who would do the costumes?

In the end, it just wasn’t viable.

I know, I told him. You can bury me at sea.

Well, I’d always loved the ocean and at that stage we lived in land-locked Joburg so it was something we didn’t get to enjoy too often.

It wasn’t that simple, though (he reckons my ideas never are). A full, musical accompaniment would be required: a recording of my favourite tenor singing Gounod’s Ave Maria – specifically the one the composer wrote over Bach’s Prelude in C; Maria Callas singing La Mamma Morta (for the drama, not the words); and Guns N’ Roses singing Knocking on Heaven’s Door.

To my amazement, the beloved – while not exactly thrilled – reckoned he could do it. The only trouble was his version lacked some of the ceremony I would require.

“I’ll take a CD player, hire a rowboat and then tip you over the side when we’re out far enough,” he joked – at least, I think he was joking.

I hadn’t thought about it for years – as I said, I try not to – but the other day a friend said she’d come across a biodegradable urn.

Looking just like a giant cardboard takeaway coffee cup with a picture of a tree on the outside, it contains, among other things, your ashes and the seed of a tree. If everything goes according to plan – and you’d better hope whoever buries you has a green thumb – the tree grows and becomes your living memorial.

“I’d like to be a spreading oak,” raved a friend, “shading a long Sunday lunch table filled with happy, laughing friends … eating delicious fare ….”

Said another: “I’ll be a Japanese maple.”

As for me, I’ll stick with my sea-going ceremony – even if it is in a rowboat. — Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

Picture: © Stevie Godson – All Rights Reserved


Bugs and bonanzas

Lexical by Brett JordanWE’VE been well and truly wamble-cropped in our house lately. As if it isn’t bad enough that I’ve been battling an evil, recurring infection for months, the beloved’s just been felled by a different kind of bug.

I’ve been ducking and diving out of his germ-laden way as much as possible, but to no avail – as of two days ago, a painful, hacking cough has had me in its clutches.

Multiple sneezes and a fuzzy, aching head tell me a rotten cold isn’t very far behind.

Health-wise, it definitely hasn’t been the best of times chez Godson recently, but I’m happy to report that when it comes to words, there’s been a bonanza. I haven’t even had to search for them; they’ve come winging my way as purposefully as a swarm of bees.

Take wamble-cropped (as indeed I have, wholeheartedly!). Popular in England between 1485 and 1603, it means unwell, according to Paul Anthony Jones, a writer, musician and author of word origins guide Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons, who I came across on the Mental Floss website the other day. On its own, he explains, the word “wambles” was used more specifically by the Tudors of merry old England to describe queasy tummy rumbles, of which I’ve had more than my fair share lately.

They could also be described by another of Mr J’s obscure words – borborygmus, which derived originally from an onomatopoeic Greek word. “Borborygmi are produced as the contents of the intestines are pushed along by waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis,” he says.

I know them well after my ghastly preparations for a recent colonoscopy. Several glasses full of liquid laxative, as well as jugs full of water – not the best way to spend a day! – guaranteed the sensation for me.

Now, to add to my woes, there’s the cough and incipient cold.

Always on the lookout for a silver lining, and bearing in mind my late mother-in-law’s admonition to feed a cold and starve a fever, when I stumbled across an entry on the Macmillan Dictionary blog about “starve” and “cold” I thought I’d found a consoling wordy connection to that, too. I should have known better: Starved WITH the cold, the entry was headed.

Reading on, I discovered it bore no relation to the folk remedy at all. “In Ireland”, explains the blog’s Stan Carey, “… you will sometimes hear people say starved or starving to mean cold or freezing instead of the usual very hungry.”

“Starve” derives from old English word “steorfan”, which originally meant “die”, albeit in an unspecific way. The definition narrowed in the 14th century to mean “die of cold”, later narrowing even more to its current meaning – to die of hunger.

Such narrowing – also known to linguists as restriction or specialisation – is a common semantic process, says Mr C, throwing in some surprising examples. “Accident used to mean any occurrence, before it took on the more restricted sense of something unfortunate that happens by chance,” he says.

Similarly, an undertaker was anyone who undertook to do work. Deer meant animal, and meat was any kind of food. And that’s exactly what I’m looking for right now. A tasty snack, that is, to feed my cold (but nothing so rich it will set those wambles off again).  – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)

Photo: Lexical by Brett Jordan

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Putting a name to it

Chicken by steve p2008IT BEGAN in the most unlikely way, my search for aptronyms. It was during the course of an animated cyber squabble some time ago about genetically modified produce. The “debate”, between a few like-minded journalists (myself included) and a large national retail chain, raged around certain social media websites for a while. Furious posts filled Facebook pages and tweets twittered back and forth – entirely appropriate since its trigger was chicken-feed – and in the process, I came across the aptronymical Mr Ralph Peckover, hired by the retailer in question to certify its organic eggs.

Friend, website editor, travel writer and “Frankenfood” foe Caroline Hurry had written to the retailer asking where (or if) GM-free food was sourced for the hens that produced their organic eggs.

Alas, this particular retailer, despite its boasts to the contrary, seems not to be averse to a little greenwashing (a newly discovered but fairly rampant condition spread by companies trying to pull the wool over the public’s eyes about their “green” credentials): in the space of a year, instead of reducing the GM products on its shelves, it had almost doubled the number. Wrote Carrie, who was trying to source non-GM food for her own egg-laying chickens: “It is very concerning that all maize in South Africa is genetically modified – which includes hen food. If these ‘organic eggs’ are being laid by hens that are fed GMO corn, then calling them organic is highly misleading.”

After what seemed like purposeful delaying tactics, and “egged” on by questioning tweets and Facebook posts from the rest of us, the retailer finally put Carrie in touch with said Mr Peckover.

The news was not good.

“South Africa does not even have an ‘organic regulation’,” the independent food inspector told her, “… so anyone can label a food ‘organic’ and there is nothing anyone can do about it even when it is not. Countries like Ethiopia have an ‘organic regulation’ but ours I think remains a pipe dream.”

Not to my determined friend, though. She rounded up all her contacts and put together her own list of GM-free-foodstuff producers around the country. You can find it on her website: Travelwrite (none from the Eastern Cape so far – do tell me if you know of any).

So Carrie ended up finding her GM-free chicken-feed elsewhere, and I ended up with yet another word-nerd obsession – finding aptronyms: real names which are, as Oxford Dictionaries says, “regarded as amusingly appropriate to their occupation”.

Well-known ones include Usain Bolt, who’s almost as fast as lightning; Tiger Woods, who wields them on the golf course; and comic actor Martin Short, who’s extremely vertically challenged.

Among the less well known listed in British linguist David Crystal’s book Words, Words, Words are a Cardinal in the Philippines called Sin and an American police chief called Lawless.

A famous example, recalls Crystal, is Dr Russell Brain, a leading British neurologist, not to mention the medical journal Brain’s one-time editor Dr Henry Head.

But none of them can beat the one I discovered in a journal published by the American Medical Association: Dr Richard “Dick” Chopp, a Texan urologist who spends much of his time carrying out vasectomies! – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

Pic by stevep2008 //


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Look who’s been cooking the books

Mma Ramotswe's CookbookWHEN I discovered, while researching the virtues of olive oil the other day, that the endearing Mma Ramotswe, of  No I Ladies’ Detective Agency fame, had put all her prize recipes into a cookbook, I knew it was one to avoid. I feared I’d enjoy Alexander McCall Smith’s fictional character’s culinary creations far too much.

The book’s sub-title was the giveaway – Nourishment for the Traditionally Built.

I could ignore the mopane worms, that’s for sure, but not all the puddings, stews and other tasty treats.  It certainly wouldn’t take much persuasion for me to try out her Persuasive Fruit Cake or Lemon and Condensed Milk Biscuits.

Food in fiction adds another dimension to an imagined character but it’s nothing new, of course. The first time I was aware of it was years ago when family friend – and ex-US state senator, broadcaster, journalist  and fellow food addict – Jack Robinson was reading and eating his way through crime writer Lawrence Sanders Deadly Sin books (all seven of them).

Well, he couldn’t really help himself.

The books’ hero, Detective Ed Delaney, apart from being an ace at getting psychotic killers off the streets, never met a New York deli-style sandwich he didn’t like, and he described them all in sublime detail. As a result, whenever Jack read one of the novels, he’d salivate so much he always had to break off and whip a couple of sarnies up; monster masterpieces dripping with mayonnaise, cheese, salami, dill pickles, tomatoes and anything else he could cram into them. If I was around, he’d have to make me one too, which is probably why I remember them so vividly.

My own foodie fiction experience started with Nora Ephron’s novel, Heartburn. Revenge, it’s said, is a dish best served cold: Nora Ephron dished it up cold, hot and every other which-way. “Loosely” based on the breakup of her marriage to cheating All the President’s Men/Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, it’s all about a cookbook writer who’s married to a cheating reporter. It not only launched a load of novel recipes – everything from perfect pasta to peach pie – it topped bestseller lists and became a movie, too, starring Meryl Streep.

Another of my foodie fiction favourites is Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café (be warned, though – it features a most nauseating food episode, too).

I tried cooking Ms Flagg’s fried green tomatoes. They’re delish. She later published Fannie Flagg’s Original Whistle Stop Café Cookbook. Chock-a-block with Southern recipes like black-eyed peas, fried chicken, and pecan nut pie, it reads like a novel even though it’s not.

I won’t, however, be trying any of the recipes concocted by crime writer Patricia Cornwell’s fictional medical examiner, Kay Scarpetta. How people who work in gruesome environments can ever eat, let alone cook, is beyond me. The spin-off cookbook’s title, Food to Die For, is enough to persuade me never to glance at the pages within its covers.

I’ve been off my food for the last 24 hours, as it is – ever since I inadvertently washed (and spun dry) a small frog. Shame. Thank goodness it was in the washing machine and not the dishwasher. – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)


Between You & Me …

…  Confessions of a Comma Queen

by Mary Norris

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson


Confessions of a Comma Queen“Let’s get one thing straight right from the beginning,” says Mary Norris. “I didn’t set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had, the summer I was 15, was checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland.”

As if that isn’t odd enough, Norris became a “milkwoman”, too, but that’s another (funny) story entirely in this almost certainly unique part- memoir/part-history/part-style guide of a book.

“. . . you put the milk between the storm door and the inside door, and shouted ‘Milkman!’ I wasn’t a man, but I didn’t like the word ‘lady’—it seemed too feminist—so I wouldn’t holler ‘Milklady!’, and ‘milkmaid’ was a little too fanciful. I settled for ‘milkwoman’, which was a bit too anatomically correct and made me sound like a wet nurse,” she recalls. (And maybe that’s what laid the foundation for her admitted confusion—style-wise, that is—about sex and gender, covered at length later on in the book.)

Whether she intended to or not, Norris did, indeed, become a comma queen, learning from the strictest, the best and the downright eccentric at The New Yorker, where she’s worked for more than three decades—two of them in the copy editing department.

In a way, she became the grammar geeks’ grammar geek, the one with whom oft-revered others, including author John McPhee and professor of English and journalism Ben Yagoda acknowledge they’d happily confer.

Modest and, at times, disarmingly blunt, Norris distils wisdom, anecdotes, and plain “comma” sense in almost equal measure, often winding family stories and office politics into graphic illustrations of good grammar at work—particularly affecting and effective when it involves her transsexual brother’s deep distress over the pronoun with which she refers to him.

Her “lessons”, woven as they are from her wit and experience, are generally memorable but perhaps none more so than one on hyphenating compounds, illustrated by the memory of a letter to The New Yorker from a reader complaining about the term “star fucker.”

The reader wasn’t the least offended by seeing the term in print, only by its lack of what she called the “activating hyphen,” recalls Norris, who goes on to explain most matter-of-factly: “. . . without the hyphen, each word has equal weight: a fucker who is a star. But in ‘star-fucker’ the hyphen tips the weight to the first element, the object (star) of the activity embodied in the noun (fucking).”

Profanity has its own chapter in the book, by the way: “Whose delicate sensibilities are we catering to,” Norris asks.  “Certainly not mine—not any more.”

And even though she agrees no one wants to be constantly pummelled by four-letter words: “If we are going to use them, let’s use them right.”

Tackling the niggliest of grammatical issues — from apostrophe catastrophes to the perils of possession—with a bit of history and autobiography thrown in, her sound knowledge is tempered always by a delicious sense of the ridiculous.

Take the semicolon, if you will. “What the fuck is a semicolon anyway,” she asks.

“No mark of punctuation is so upper-crust,” she reckons, adding that Americans can do without it “just as they can give Marmite a pass . . . We are a plainspoken, cheerfully vulgar people.”

Firm but open-minded when it comes to the subject she clearly adores, “I always forget that, in the popular imagination, the copy editor is a bit of a witch . . . ,” she says at one point, recalling the time a young editorial assistant, on hearing she was a copy editor, “jumped back as if I might poke her with a red-hot hyphen or force-feed her a pound of commas.”

And that’s simply not so.

In any case, as she points out, everybody makes mistakes: “Regularly, my grasp of the subjunctive slips, and I need to visit the grammatical equivalent of a chiropractor,” Norris says, deftly spinning the thought into a lesson on just how much easier than it looks the subjunctive really is.

Her witty take on the puzzles of punctuation—mostly dictated by the rules of The New Yorker, to which she is professionally bound—is, to use one of her own descriptions, a “big-ass” delight.

Her fondest wish, the author says, is that whoever looks at her book’s title will learn to say fearlessly “‘between you and me’ (not ‘I’), whether or not you actually buy the book and penetrate to the innards of the objective case.”

Stevie Godson is a columnist, a copy editor and a former books page editor.

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Just My Typo

Just My TypoLUCKY me. I’ve really hit the jackpot when it comes to internet competitions – especially on Twitter.

Over the course of a couple of years, my loot has included such treasures as a hefty two and a half kilogram Chambers Dictionary; and Scar Tissue, the award-winning memoir of Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis – a brutally frank, eye-poppingly outrageous page-turner of a book.

Unfortunately, I fear our ongoing – and largely unreported – postal strike has scuppered my very latest wordy win: Ritual Lighting, a special edition of UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s work, illuminated with sublime calligraphic art. Weeks after I was notified, there’s still no sign of it.

I’ve also gained a tea towel! Emblazoned with a clever quote from Sandy Toksvig’s last book in a contest dreamed up by the undomesticated but erudite Danish-born author and broadcaster’s publishers, it’s among my oddest wins so far.

Almost as odd is the laser-cut necklace produced especially for me by a rather zooty English custom jewellery company and displaying that fine word “fudgel”.

“Pretending to work when you’re not actually doing anything at all,” it means, which is what I was doing when I submitted it.

The common denominator among all these goodies – apart from their obvious literary links – is that I had to enter competitions to win them. I’m quite strict with myself about such things: I won’t compete for anything that requires me to promote the prize or company in any way; and I won’t enter more than once. I answer a question and then forget about it. What will be, will be, I reckon.

Imagine my surprise then when, out of the blue, a Twitter message popped up on my computer screen a month or so ago from one Drummond Moir, editorial director of a leading UK-based literary imprint, telling me I’d won something for which I hadn’t even competed. Not that I’m complaining – it’s right up my literary lane.

“Hi Stevie,” said his message. “Thanks for tweeting about Just My Typo – you’ve won a free copy!”

So how did I win? Simply by adding “Oops” and sending on someone else’s tweet featuring a rude but funny typo from the book, it seems.

Luckily, Mr Moir’s book wasn’t caught up in the strike. It was couriered to my door – and how glad I am that it was.

Here’s a couple of my favourites so far from its entertaining collection of “typographical errors, slips of the pen, and embarrassing misprints”:

“The man blew out his brains after bidding his wife good-bye with a shotgun.” [Who says commas aren’t necessary?];

and, from the UK Times: “The queen herself graciously pissed over the magnificent edifice.”

Now I can only hope this column doesn’t fall prey to Muphry’s Law (as opposed to that of its better known, similarly named cousin):“If you write anything criticising editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.” – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch newspaper)

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Typo Positive …


Sub-editing fail, pic courtesy tweet by Bern_Morley

(Sub-editing Fail – originally tweeted by @Bern_Morley)

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The Mockingbird Next Door …

… Life With Harper Lee

by Marja Mills

Reviewed for New York Journal of Books by Stevie Godson


The Mockingbird Next DoorTHERE can be few people in the English-speaking world who don’t know anything about Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird, which is more than can be said about the life of its author, the reclusive, elusive Harper Lee.

Her groundbreaking—and only—book, first published in 1960, has sold more than 40 million copies and was turned into an Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck.

Miss Lee, unlike her close childhood friend Truman Capote, has always eschewed the limelight, granting very few interviews through the years since the book’s release, preferring to live in quiet obscurity with her lawyer sister Alice in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama.

Until 2001, that is, when the then 75 year old allowed Chicago Tribune reporter Marja Mills into her home and, subsequently, her small circle of trusted friends.

To Kill a Mockingbird—a now classic tale of childhood innocence and racial prejudice in 1930s America, as well as one of the 20th century’s best-loved books—had been chosen by Chicago Public Library as the first selection in its One Book, One Chicago program. Mills’ editor thought it was worth her going to Monroeville despite the famous author’s reclusive reputation.

Once there, Mills first made an impression on Alice Lee who, although in her 90s, was still practicing law—real estate transactions, tax returns, and wills were at the heart of her practice.

It turned out to be the key to the door, leading Harper Lee herself to call and ask if they could meet.

“It was as if I had answered the phone and heard ‘Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz.’ I felt my adrenaline spike,” Mills recalls.

She was not, explained Nelle—Harper Lee’s first name and the one by which she is known to friends and family—granting an interview for her newspaper, “but a chance to visit.”

The interview, however, was finally written, by which time Mills felt she and the Lee sisters had forged a kind of friendship.

By the time, a few years later, and as a result of her battles with the auto immune condition lupus, she was put on her newspaper’s medical disability plan, Mills wondered what was stopping her spending her time off—a couple of months to a year, tops, she reckoned—in Alabama.

In 2004, and apparently with the Lees’ encouragement, Mills moved into the house next door to the sisters. The idea of writing a book took about them took root in their conversations, she reports.

“Nelle had already told me several things she thought I could write about and correct regarding ‘the 40-year file on Harper Lee’.”

And there’s the rub.

That there is a fascinating story to tell is indisputable.

That Mills does a good job putting across the information she claims to have been given is also completely clear.

What the book lacks is objectivity.

Not only does the author note that she never asked questions she felt would be unwelcome, she is awestruck to the point of obsequiousness.

It is to the book’s and the readers’ detriment that her hero worship of her often grumpy subject is so glaring.

Planning to drive to New Jersey, for example, Mills is ecstatic when Nelle agrees to accompany her. Nauseatingly, she soon finds herself “fighting the overwhelming urge to get a window sign that said: Please Be Careful. National Treasure on Board.” [Capital letters included!]

The famous author’s phone number is recorded in her little pink address book under a made-up name. “I was afraid,” she explains, “if it were ever lost or stolen I would feel compelled to leap from the Sears Tower rather than owning up to the security breach.”

The inordinate privilege she feels, and to which she often refers, is an ongoing intrusion.

Respect is one thing, obsequiousness an uncomfortable other.

“Nelle wanted to go over my file of stories about her over the years to point out inaccuracies and set the record straight,” writes Mills at one point.

Nelle had originally wanted to call the book Having Their Say, also used in the title of a bestselling book about two African American sisters, one sweet, the other saltier, looking back on their lives, reports Mills. If that is indeed the case, there’s no chance of any confusion about this book’s intent. Perhaps it was a simple case of a willing person with a talent for writing being in the right place at the right time, not to mention having the right attitude.

“Three things out of Nelle’s control were in the works. Not one but two movies were being filmed about Truman Capote researching his 1966 bestselling book In Cold Blood in Kansas with his friend Harper Lee [Infamous, with Sandra Bullock as Nelle and Toby Jones as Truman; and Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.] Worse still, the first major Lee biography was under way by someone she didn’t know or trust. Charles Shields, the man working on the biography [Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee] had written Nelle to request her help. She wanted nothing to do with it.”

Mills acknowledges she wouldn’t have been around the sisters at all if she’d included anything they didn’t want to share in the first article. “Even the fact that I’d never asked her to autograph a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird for me factored in.”

The result: instead of an insightful look at the life of Harper Lee, we have an extended literary love letter—and even that’s marred by a surfeit of sycophancy.

Footnote: Despite author Marja Mills’ assertions to the contrary, Harper Lee denies The Mockingbird Next Door was written with her approval. “Rest assured, as long as I am alive any book purporting to be with my co-operation is a falsehood,” she said in a statement released just before its publication. Penguin Press stands by the book.

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