Summer Concert Series: Colleen White and Sean Smith

summer concert series
Get ready for the upcoming performances in the library’s Summer Concert Series! Concerts are at 7 p.m. every Thursday night in July and August at East End Veterans Memorial Park. Every Monday, Free for All will offer an article about, or interview with, the band of the week. The following is an interview with Colleen White and Sean Smith.

What made you decide to become a musician?

SEAN: I think pretty early on as a kid, I liked the idea that music wasn’t just something you listened to, passively – you could put yourself into it, express it, even just for your own enjoyment. There’s a photo somewhere of me at 5, maybe 6 years old, pretending to be a symphony conductor (I’m even wearing a suit and tie) and leading an orchestra of my various toys and stuffed animals. I also was fortunate to have parents with eclectic tastes who exposed me to all sorts of music: classical, jazz, pop, rock as well as lots of folk.

Funny enough, though, seeing the documentary on the 1969 Woodstock festival when I was 12 was what really made me want to pick up an instrument – specifically the guitar. Watching Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Alvin Lee and Carlos Santana up there on the screen, I just thought playing guitar must be the most fun thing ever. And so I got myself a cheap electric guitar and prepared to become a rock-n-roll legend.

Well, didn’t turn out quite that way. The folk music channel in my ear just didn’t turn off. When I was 13, my mother took me to a folk festival in upstate New York, and I kept coming back to it every year, because I liked the sense of community there, and the accessibility of the music. I began spending more time with my acoustic guitar than my electric one, singing songs by the various performers I’d heard at that festival. And as I listened to more of that music, and I worked more at playing guitar, I felt more confident and comfortable about sharing the music with other people.

COLLEEN: For me, it was just always something I grew up with. My dad played classical guitar and my sisters and I were put into music lessons for a little of everything (voice, piano, saxophone, violin – very poorly). But the focus on Irish music happened when I was around 11. We attended the wedding of a family friend, and they had a trad band play for the reception. I must have stared at the flute player for hours before working up the nerve to talk to her and ask her about her instrument and where she’d learned to play. She offered to give me lessons on the spot, and from there she connected me with the Irish music scene in Minnesota. Fifteen years later and here we are!

How would you describe your sound?

SEAN: Colleen and I play mostly traditional songs and instrumental music from Ireland, so a lot of our material is more than a century old, even older. But we like to include modern influences in our arrangements, and we also do a few contemporary songs by people like Kate Rusby, Karine Polwart and Steve Tilston, who incorporate elements from traditional folk music in their work – there’s definitely an old/new dynamic at work. Still, even if we might experiment a little, we both have a lot of respect for the folk tradition and so we want the songs and tunes to stand on their own. There are some great stories in there, after all, and we want to make sure they get a good telling.

COLLEEN: Sean hit the nail on the head! I would also say that I always think of us as storytellers as much as musicians, cheesy as that sounds. Irish music is known for terrific (if often tragic) stories within the melodies, and I think we really try to bring that out and help that connect with the audience.

What is your songwriting process like?

SEAN: Well, in our case it’s more like “song adaptation” or “song arrangement,” since our repertoire comes primarily from folk tradition. But the great thing about folk music is that it belongs to everybody and nobody, so when you sing a song that goes back years and years, you’re indulging in a shared form of songwriting, one that takes place across many generations. You have the opportunity to put your own stamp on the music, whether it’s the way you sing it, or maybe something you do with the accompaniment (if you have one), or some other aspect of the arrangement.

Colleen and I have known each other and played together for several years, but it was only a little over a year ago that we really sat down and worked on a repertoire. Obviously, no two people have exactly the same musical tastes and experiences, and I’ve enjoyed seeing how ours intersect. I think that a collaboration offers the chance to learn and grow, and that’s definitely the case for me: I’ve shared stuff in my repertoire with Colleen, but she also knows songs that I might not have thought about performing; then when we try them out it’s like, “Oh, OK, I could do that. Let me try this…”

COLLEEN: And from the tunes side, it’s always great going back through old recordings or tunes you used to play, dusting them off, and seeing if you can make it work! We’ve also had some fun lately finding tunes that work with the songs we’re singing, especially when the names and melodies work to make a nice little theme (again, we really love word jokes).

Which artists have been your biggest musical influences, and what is it that draws you to their music?

SEAN: Oh boy, there have been so many, at different stages of my musical path. I could go all the way back to Pete Seeger, the Clancy Brothers and Joan Baez, for example, since they were among the first folk singers I listened to; or the people I heard at the folk festival I mentioned earlier, like John Roberts & Tony Barrand, a wonderful English duo; David Bromberg, an amazing blues-style guitarist; the Boys of the Lough, who play Irish and Scottish traditional music – they all helped expand my awareness of folk music.

Once I really decided that I wanted to play this music, I was tremendously inspired by the 1970s folk revival in Ireland and the British Isles. There were all these performers or bands that took the folk tradition in new, innovative directions while retaining its spirit and character: Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Andy Irvine, Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention, Pentangle, the Bothy Band, Planxty, De Danaan, the Young Tradition, the Watersons, Dick Gaughan, the Battlefield Band, Five Hand Reel, Horslips. I could go on and on. Listening to them, I understood there were many ways you could personalize folk music and make it feel relevant for you, even though it’s based in traditions that are centuries old.

I believe it’s important to keep your ears and mind open for other influences and sources of inspiration. What’s great about the Boston area is we have so many excellent musicians and singers, so all you have to do is go out to concerts or jam sessions and you have the opportunity to further enrich yourself. I’m particularly impressed with the young musicians I meet – some even elementary school-age – who have embraced traditional music and make a point to learn about it. How can you not be inspired by that?

COLLEEN: Sean has a much better background than me! I tend to pick a favorite and listen to them obsessively for six months before moving on to the next “discovery”. Current Irish favorites right now seem to be Colm O’Donnell for his flute playing and Olivia Chaney for her incredible voice.

Please tell us about any albums you have available or in production.

SEAN: That’s something we haven’t quite got around to doing yet. We both have full-time jobs, and Colleen’s going for her MBA, so sometimes it’s all we can do just to get together for rehearsals and gigs. However, we have a SoundCloud site that has samples of our music; while these are not studio recordings, we think they convey the essence of our music quite well.

We also maintain a website, so you can keep up to date on our activities, which perhaps someday might include recording an album.

What should people expect when they come to your concert on Thursday night?

SEAN: Sadly, our 30-piece Irish dance troupe and our 100-voice chorus will not be available for the gig, so you’ll have to put up with just the two of us. OK, there’s your rim shot. Seriously, we try to represent a cross-section of experience and emotion: a love story here, a bit of humor there, an historical ballad, and so on. And there’ll almost certainly be a few instances where people can join in on the singing – we definitely like that.

COLLEEN: I will almost certainly forget the name of a tune that I have been playing for a decade, Sean will wow you with his multi-instrumental talent, and one of us make at least one really awful punning joke. Oh, and a song about a terrible first date.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

SEAN: It’s marvelous to have a library that supports and promotes live music. Sure, you could just spend the evening at home and have all kinds of entertainment options. But going out to a performance – whatever kind of music it might be – that’s organized and presented locally, and in an intimate setting, is really good for you. Doing this reminds us that music isn’t just something that comes out of an electronic device. We all make it – sometimes imperfectly, but that’s what art is about, anyway.

So if you don’t come to see us – though we certainly hope you do – do try to make it out to a local concert somewhere, sometime.

More about the Summer Concert Series:
Concerts will be held at 7 p.m. on Thursday evenings in July and August at East End Veterans’ Memorial Park. Bring a blanket or folding chair, and maybe even a picnic dinner, and enjoy live acoustic music from a new performer each week. East End Veterans’ Memorial Park is located at 45 Walnut Street. The concert schedule is as follows:

July 9th: Damn Tall Buildings
July 16th: Hoot and Holler
July 23rd: Colleen White and Sean Smith
July 30th: Semi-Aquatic Rodent
August 6th: Molly Pinto Madigan
August 13th: Eva Walsh
August 20th: Ian Fitzgerald
August 27th: The Whiskey Boys

Please note: In the event of rain, Summer Concerts will be held in the Sutton Room at the Peabody Institute Library and food will not be allowed.

For more information, please call 978-531-0100 ext. 10, or visit the library’s website at


At the Movies: Mr. Holmes

Article Lead - wide998209890gib5sdimage.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.gib3oi.png1437274751273.jpg-620x349We’ve discussed the creator of Sherlock Holmes in a previous post, but with the release this week of Mr. Holmes, starring Sir Ian McKellan as The Great Detective (and the explosion across social media of a teaser trailer for the Christmas special of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman)  it seems the time has come to discuss Holmes himself in a little more detail.

Holmes first appeared in 1887 in the pages of A Study in Scarlet, which was a part of the massive (and massively popular) Beeton’s Christmas Annual.  At this point, Holmes is approximately 27 (experts have deduced his birthdate to be Jan. 6, 1854) and is essentially That Guy who hangs around in the laboratory of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, performing odd experiments which generally put everyone off their lunch.  Thanks so a lack of funds, he has been trying to find a roommate, but we learn, fairly early on, that no one is willing to live with him…which, frankly, isn’t too surprising when Holmes’ first description of himself is “I dabble with poisons a good deal”.

Fate, however, was kind, and brought Holmes together with Dr. John H. Watson, his best friend of more than thirty years.  It is through Watson’s devotion that we learn anything at all about Holmes, but what we see isn’t always pleasant…he is disorganized to the point of being a slob, he is curt and self-absorbed, fires revolvers in the house because he’s bored, has a long-standing addiction to cocaine (which, granted, wasn’t classified as an illegal substance when he was using it, but Watson and Doyle were adamant that the stuff did more harm than good), and faked his own death several times in the interest of a case without alerting his only friend to the fact that it was all an act.

Perhaps some of the appeal lies in Holmes inscrutability.  Conan Doyle himself wasn’t too particular about his details, and as a result, we have a man in a deerstalker hat, with a calabash pipe–but no parents, hardly any family, and few memories.  We can recognize his face and his catch-phrases with ease, but readers only get brief glimpses of the man himself in the course of the stories, tantalizing details that are all the more powerful for their scarcity.  In truth, his flaws may be the very things that make him so loveable.  Unlike so many other literary heroes (particularly in Holmes’ era), he isn’t perfect, and doesn’t pretend to be, either to himself or to Watson (who loves him no matter what).  Yet somehow, he prevails.  He has the power to set the world to rights again, if only a very small scale.  And, that assurance, that someone so flawed and so odd, can still succeed, is perhaps the most meaningful aspect of Holmes’ character throughout the ages.

Yet Guinness Book of World Records lists Holmes as “the most portrayed character” in history, with more than 70 actors playing the part in over 200 films since 1900.  Indeed, there is a charming scene at the opening of Mr. Holmes when the 93-year-old detective (McKellen) ducks into a movie theater, only to be forced to watch The Young Sherlock Holmes (not one of the best pastiches to hit the screen). So if you are eager to learn more about The Great Detective and the myriad actors who have portrayed him, come in and have a look through our collections!

hbaltBasil Rathbone: Rathbone is still the name that most people associate with Holmes on screen, even if only a few of the films were based on actual Holmes stories.  He certainly looks precisely like Sydney Paget’s illustrations of Holmes, which may be why he found himself cast in The Hound of the Baskervilles instead of Gone With the Wind, despite lobbying enthusiastically for the part of Rhett Butler.  The Rathbone era was also the period when Watson was portrayed as little more than a bumbling oaf, and it seems incredible that Holmes would put up with such idiocy, even if it does make his own cleverness a little more obvious.

hound2Peter Cushing: Stars Wars and Dr. Who veteran Cushing portrayed Holmes for Hammer films (the same studio that made The Mummy and The Horror of Dracula), with Christopher Lee in the role of Sir Henry Baskerville.  Though not really the most stellar of adaptations, it’s fun to see Hammer try and do a literary adaptation–and highlights the very real difficulty every Holmes franchise has had with bringing the immortal Hound of the Baskervilles to life.

Jeremy-Brett-as-Sherlock-Holmes-sherlock-holmes-14711339-501-713Jeremy Brett: Though Rathbone may be name people remember, Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes is considered widely to be the best.  Brett captured Holmes’ darker, troubled side with subtle grace, and wasn’t afraid to confront the unsavory aspects of his character head-on.  Best of all, Brett, and the rest of the production team, were deeply committed to creating the most accurate depiction of Holmes possible, and their on-set ‘Bible’ is considered a benchmark of Holmesian scholarship.  This series also gave Watson his due, emphasizing his intellect and empathy, and reveling in the humor and affection in their relationship.

downloadRobert Downey, Jr: Holmes’ experts and devotees are still a bit undecided about Guy Ritchie’s version of Holmes and Watson.  While this certainly is a series that emphasizes Holmes’ stranger tendencies to the point of making him a caricature, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law absolutely capture the long-standing, long-suffering relationship between these two men, emphasizing their mutual co-dependency in way that few other adaptations do.

sherlockjpg_2777748bBenedict Cumberbatch: Currently the most famous iteration of Holmes, Stephan Moffat’s series launches Holmes and Watson into the twenty-first century, which gives this show the room to explore their relationship, and Holmes’ personality, in a whole new light.  A number of questions have been raised over the course of this series, including the designation of Holmes as a ‘sociopath’, or his ambivalent relationship with women, but there is no doubt that Cumberbatch and Freeman have made a new generation into Holmes’ aficionados.

Saturdays @ the South: Book Shame & the Right to Judgement-Free Reading

embarrassed-readingThe other day, I read an article in Business Insider that talked about the “real” reason people buy e-readers. It wasn’t the ability to offer hundreds of books at your fingertips (making the loads for readers that travel so much lighter), or the opportunity to read free and steeply discounted classics, or the chance to read a book in any size font (great for books that never made it into large print), or even  having an in-text dictionary available while reading books with insanely broad vocabularies (I’m looking at you China Mieville!). Nope, according to this article, the reason people like e-readers is so that no one can tell what you’re actually reading. It got me thinking about how people categorize their reading and the fact that, whether we like it or not, there is a certain level of pressure about what is and is not “socially acceptable” reading on the subway, or park, or any other public place where people can possibly judge you for your reading tastes.

As a librarian, and as someone who believes in wide access to reading materials of all types, this gets my ire up. As a human being it bothers me that people make assumptions and snarky judgments about someone based on what they’re reading. Reading tastes are as wide and varied as the people who enjoy them and they aren’t necessarily representative of who that person is or is not. Reading sci-fi doesn’t make someone a dork; reading romance doesn’t make someone a sap. It doesn’t even necessarily represent a genre preference or an author preference. Horizons can be expanded in any direction. Why should people be embarrassed for this?

In one of my classes for my MLIS, I was appalled to read about how librarians used to try and “guide” (i.e. force) readers into “correct” choices by telling them they should be reading “proper” literature. There was even a push to keep popular authors out of libraries because it wasn’t what people “should” be reading. Today, any librarian worth his/her salt today should have their hearts leap with joy because people are reading (no matter what or in what format), but readers now fear public judgment instead. In a Bustle article about narrowing down book choices to read, one of the “concerns” was: “will this book cover embarrass me in public?”

In one sense I’m glad that e-readers have enabled people to read what they want with less fear of being embarrassed, but I don’t see the need to be embarrassed by reading something you think you’ll enjoy in the first place. Therefore,  the point of this little rant is to call for a ban on book snobbery, to recognize fellow readers as kindred spirits in the fact that they are reading for pleasure and to accept each other’s tastes.  As such, here are some suggestions to read, in hard copy, in public, unabashedly. Borrow them freely knowing that we at the library will NOT judge you for what you read and your tastes will be respected:

319963450 Shades of Grey Trilogy – E. L. James

I’m going to address the giant, handcuffed elephant in the room right off the bat, although frankly, given the popularity of these books, the new Grey sequel AND the movie, I wonder why people are even raising their eyebrows at reading this anymore. Over 100 million people worldwide can’t all be wrong…

3081372Flowers in the Attic – V.C. Andrews

There’s something about a book that has characters with lots of secrets that somehow makes people think that reading that book should be a secret. Time to let the cat out of the bag and bring this book out into the open. If you get the South Branch’s copy, you’ll be treated to a double-feature with this book followed by the sequel, Petals on the Wind.

2393457Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers

Yes its another example of 100 million people can’t be wrong, but the Twilight series also brings to light an interesting note about YA books and the stigma attached to them. Some feel that YA books should be left for younger readers and aren’t suitable for adults. As someone who has already gone on record encouraging adults to read children’s books, I see no reason why adults can’t read YA books. And as a rebuttal to these naysayers, I offer you not one, not two, but three articles recommending great YA reads.

3640167Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley 

This book, and often fantasy in general is looked upon as not having any “literary merit” (though I’d defy anyone who’s read anything by Neil Gaiman to prove that comment). But fantasy, much like romance, has the ability to take people out of their norms (and sometimes out of their comfort zones) which may be exactly what the reader needs at that time. What are books for if not to give our minds a bit of a vacation?

2644601Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

I recommend this book, not so much because this title is considered a “guilty pleasure” but because it is a graphic novel and those are often categorized as “geek reads” or too “immature” for adults. Well, they’re not. There are plenty of graphic novels that deal with adult content and can be downright enjoyable for adults to read. And this article tells why far better than I could.

Before I sign off for this week, I’d like to thank my terrific friends who helped me think a bit outside the box and compile this list! My hope is that they, and all of you never feel the need to justify, make light of or be embarrassed by anything you read. Feel free to leave a comment about your favorite no-longer-guilty pleasure book. Till next week, dear readers, be proud to be readers, whatever your tastes are!

Five Book Friday!

Happy Friday, Beloved Patrons, and welcome to another Five Book Friday.  Our favorite postman and several UPS drivers have been bringing boxes of books to our doors every day, and our shelves are looking much more robust as the days pass, so be sure to come in and whet your literary appetite before another sunny and adventuresome weekend.

3636636The Sage of Waterloo: The narrator of Leona Francombe’s book is a rabbit.  A rabbit who loves history.  I fail to see what more incentive anyone could need to run out and read this book.  However, if you would like some more details, William, a white rabbit, lives at the site of the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium, where his mysterious grandmother, Old Lavender, teaches him to hear the ghosts whose voices still reverberate around the battlefield.  Library Journal called Francombe’s narrative “gentle and poetic”,  and the story itself “an eloquent reflection on the nature and cost of war…Everything in this little book is perfect.”

3633978Trailer Park Fae: Lilith Saintcrow is a born storyteller, and this debut in her Ragged and Bone series is sure to be a hit with her many fans and new readers alike.  Half-mortal Jeremy Gallow walked away from his fairy legacy years ago, and now lives the boring life of a construction worker–until the day he is dragged back into the fairy realm by a woman who looks uncannily like his dead wife, urging him to hunt down an other-wordly serial killer.  RT Book Reviews raves that Saintcrow “blends the realistic and fantastic with gusto to create a world that is beautifully detailed and wonderfully off-kilter, and a cast that is magnetic and empathetic, yet beguiling and mysterious”

3643277The Lost Concerto: Helaine Mario’s blend of thriller, romance, personal journey, and historic quest has been garnering rave reviews from critics and book bloggers alike, with Publisher’s Weekly calling it a “suspenseful, heartrending novel…which builds to a highly satisfying resolution.”  Like any good symphony, this story starts off quietly, but builds in tension and suspense as a young woman, who had fled the world years ago, is forced back when her godson disappears, and a mysterious photograph sends her on a quest that lead her to uncover a plot surrounding a famous manuscript thought lost to the ages.

3643163The Blooding: This is the fifth book in James McGee’s super-terrific historic thriller series featuring Matthew Hawkwood, a soldier-turned-spy whose adventures unfold across the landscape of the early American frontier.  In this installment, Matthew finds himself stranded behind enemies lines during the War of 1812, with no one to trust but a former comrade, Major Denis Lawrence.  As the two men make their secret way to Canada, they uncover a plot that could lose the war for Britain–but will they survive long enough to alert the British authorities?

3636557Franklin Barbecue: The Meat-Smoking Manifesto:  After the sensational Saturdays at the South post on grilling, we’ve seen an uptick in grilling books and other summertime-eats books, so this particular tome couldn’t have come at a better time.  From Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, the winner of Texas Monthly’s Best Barbecue Joint in Texas award, comes the self-proclaimed complete guide to meat and brisket cooking that goes beyond how to make a hamburger, and explores how to make a smoker, select your wood and meats, and creating the perfect fires for cooking them.  I don’t eat meat, but even I have to admit, the pictures in this particular book look down-right delicious.

So there you have it, beloved patrons!  Have a happy weekend, full of fun adventures, good food, and plenty of good books!

In other news…Pluto!


Outside of the Book World, it turns out that some other things happened this week aside from the publication of a certain book….We got to meet Pluto for the first time!  The sight of the dwarf planet itself is second in my books only to all the happy scientists who have seen their hard work, intelligence, hopes, and dreams pay off, more than nine years of waiting (and Bill Nye was there, too!).

We’ve talked here before about the wonder and danger of exploration, and wandering off the map, and it seems like there are few greater adventures than outer space.  And learning that the New Horizons spacecraft travelled 3 billion miles to get to Pluto, and has plans to travel even father still is simply mind-boggling.  This piano-sized spacecraft has managed to make it to the edge of the solar system, the edge of our knowledge, around meteor belts, comets, space rocks, possibly Dr. Who, on its way past the farther point in the universe we know (which, up to yesterday, was Neptune, which we saw for the first time in 1989), and given us all a reason to dream of what is might show us next.

Perhaps the greatest part of the story is that onboard New Horizons are the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto in 1930, at the age of 24.  It’s fascinating to think of how short our relationship with Pluto has been, overall, but it looks like that relationship is about to get pretty interesting….

So for all of you who, like, me, think the pictures coming back from New Horizon are just the coolest things ever, here is a list of space exploration/adventure themed materials to check out during your next library visit….

If you like Pluto, Then be sure to check out…

3459381The Martian:  A best-seller upon its release, Andy Weir’s book as received a new wave of attention thanks to the upcoming release of the film adaptation starring Matt Damon (you can see the trailer here).  This is the story of Mark Watney, the first man to walk on Mars–and the man who has been abandoned on Mars after a dust storm separated him from his team.  But Watney isn’t content to sit and wait for the inevitable–he is going to live now for the chance to go home.  This is a great book because, despite the sheer existential terror of being the only human being on an entire planet, the tension inherent our hero’s quest, and the depth of detail that Weir built into this story, neither he not his hero Watney ever lose their sense of humor over the course of this epic human endurance story.  Nor does it lose its respect for duct tape.  What more could you want in a book?

2913524Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void: Author Mary Roach writes some of the most unexpected popular science around today.  Her topics range from the science of taste and eating to the search for ghosts and the afterlife, but each book so intensely engaging, quirky, and enlightening, making them perfectly light, educating reading.  This book tackles those questions about space travel that we’ve all wondered, but never actually asked: how do astronauts go to the bathroom in reduced gravity?  Can they take a shower?  But beyond these answers, Roach also writes about the considerable physical and psychological difficulties that astronauts face, and how looking into the unknown makes us all confront our own humanity differently.  A must read for anyone who ever dreamed of the stars.

2299772The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Books like The Martian are considered ‘hard science fiction’, in that they deal with actual details about space travel, planetary science, etc.,  Douglas Adams’ classic is not quite the same thing, dealing as it does with the bulldozing of earth to create an intergalactic freeway, and the erstwhile human, Arthur Dent, who gets picked up seconds before the end.  This is one of my favorite books in the world, for so many reasons.  It’s funny, ridiculous (the send-up of human and alien bureaucracy alone are enough to heal your soul a little), wonderfully imaginative, and deeply insightful, featuring, as it does, the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.  For those of you who enjoy audiobooks, do not miss Stephen Fry’s recording of this book.  And remember: Don’t Panic.

3343686Pluto’s Secret: An Icy World’s Tale of Discovery: Margaret Weitekamp’s terrific book for younger readers explores the history of Pluto from its discovery by Tombaugh in 1930, up to its re-classification as a dwarf planet, and also considers how planets are named and studied.  The text is informative and fun (not an easy combination to achieve), and the artwork by Diane Kidd is simply delightful.  With all this talk about Pluto recently, this is the perfect introduction to the solar system, but older readers are sure to find plenty of fun facts in these pages, as well!

A Few More Thoughts on Watchman…

First and foremost, I cannot even begin to tell you how exciting it is to hear people talking about books in public.  People on the radio have been discussing Harper Lee.  Two trainers at the gym this morning were talking about Atticus Finch.  It is suddenly socially acceptable not only to strike up a conversation about books we read as children, but to admit, publicly, that they moved us and changed us.  And, as a dedicated bibliophile whose life has been turned upside down on a regular basis by literature, I could not think of a better outcome of Harper Lee’s newest (or oldest) novel.

It’s very clear that the controversies surrounding this novel have not, and most likely will not, go away.  From the very day that the publication of Go Set A Watchman was announced, there have been a number of reports stating that Lee herself is the victim of manipulation and swindling, an some who still hold that the manuscript itself is an outright fraud.

Interestingly, when To Kill a Mockingbird was published, there were a great many people who believed that Lee’s friend Truman Capote, author of In Cold Blood, authored the book.   In the earliest editions of Mockingbird, a quote from Capote was used on the dust jacket: “Someone rare has written this very fine first novel: a writer with the liveliest sense of life, and the warmest, most authentic sense of humor. A touching book; and so funny, so likeable.”  A great many people took this to be a subtle message from Capote admitting authorship, which he did very little at the time to refute.  It was only when a 1959 letter from Capote surfaced at auction, discussing how his friend Harper Lee was working on a new novel that the debate was finally laid to rest, only for similar accusations to arise with Watchman.

And I wonder…have we grown so used to celebrity that we inherently doubt those who do not seek the spotlight–that we can no longer trust what we cannot explicitly see?  Is it because Lee is a woman that her repeated assertions to her own authorship and decisions are doubted?  Or could it be that the characters from Mockingbird, from Boo Radley to Jem, from Scout to Atticus, are so real, and so meaningful, that we cannot conceive of the fact that they are the fictions?

1436905221269I think, ultimately, that this might be why this debate is such an emotional one: Atticus and Scout (probably most of all the characters) are too real, and have become too much a part of us, for us to accept that someone else has power over them.  There have been a number of articles posted in the past few days about the number of people who went to law school because of Atticus Finch.  Or the number of people who named their children Atticus as a way to commemorate his importance in their lives.  Or tattooed images and quotes from the book onto their own flesh so that they would become a part of the reader in a physical, as well as an emotional way.  And there are many who feel uncomfortable, at least, and betrayed, at worst, by the release of a book that threatens their understanding of the man they know as Atticus Finch.

But that is the beautiful thing about fiction.  Authors create the characters, naturally, just as they create the world those characters inhabit.  But then, like any good parents, they give them away to the world–and they become part of us.  They mean different things to different readers, and influence us in ways the author never imagined.  The Atticus who means so much to so many is not the Atticus that Harper Lee created, but the Atticus that so many readers needed him to be.  They created him out of the material Lee provided, but he is as much theirs, yours, and mine, as he is hers.  And nothing that appears in the pages of Watchman will take your Atticus out of your heart or your soul.  Watchman may be Harper Lee’s Atticus–possibly.  I’m still not sure.  And I’m not convinced anyone will ever know for sure what the truth surrounding Watchman and its publication really is.  But if he (or any other character, for that matter) gave you the strength to be you…that is a gift that cannot be taken away.


Go Set A Watchman: The Obligatory Post

Since several news outlets have referred to it as such, it’s safe to say that the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is one of the most unexpected, curious, and pivotal releases in modern publishing history.  And today is the day, beloved patrons, that history is made.

The world at large was stunned in February when it was first announced that Lee had penned a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird, a work that has been hailed as America’s “national novel”, which tells the story of Scout, a wonderfully intelligent and empathetic six-year-old, and her brother Jem, in the “tired old town” of Maycomb, Alabama with their widowed father, Atticus Finch.  When Atticus is appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman, Scout becomes witness to both the best and the worst extremes of human behavior; from the noble defense and relentless compassion of Atticus to the murderous and vengeful reactions of her closest neighbors.  Though it deals with some genuinely difficult themes and dark subject matter, this book is noteworthy for its sympathy and humanity, as well as for the way it deals with courage in the face of ignorance, fear, and prejudice.   Lee’s narrative style, which Time magazine called “tactile brilliance”, brings the world of Maycomb to life through the eyes of a precocious child who is clearly marked forever by the events of Tom Robinson’s trial.

Gregory Peck and Harper Lee, 1962
Gregory Peck and Harper Lee, 1962

The book was an immediate sensation, and although it met with sharp criticism from many Southern reviewers.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960, and in 1962, was adapted into an Oscar-winning film, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in a role that would forever define his career (Lee thought Peck so embodied her father, who was the model for Atticus, that she gave him her father’s pocket watch).  By 1964, however, Lee was so overwhelmed and exhausted by the attention both she and her book received that she refused all press requests.  Since then, the book has gone on to be a classic, as famous for its subject matter as for the reclusive nature of its shy author.

Hence the genuine shock–and intense doubt– that resulted from the announcement that Harper Lee had penned a second book about Atticus, Scout, and Maycomb.  Many claimed that Lee, who is currently 89 years old, and suffers from failing hearing and vision.  was a victim of elderly abuse, and was being coerced into publishing the book.  News coverage was so intense that the Alabama Securities Commission investigated the situation, eventually concluding that Harper Lee was fully cognizant of the publication of her long-hidden novel, and eager for its release.  Shortly thereafter, Lee released a statement through her publisher, Harper Collins, stating, “In the mid-1950s, I completed a novel called ‘Go Set a Watchman.  It features the character known as Scout as an adult woman, and I thought it a pretty decent effort…My editor, who was taken by the flashbacks to Scout’s childhood, persuaded me to write a novel (what became ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’) from the point of view of the young Scout. … I am humbled and amazed that this will now be published after all these years”.

But reactions to Go Set A Watchman will very likely be mixed, as expectations collide with reality, and inevitable comparisons are drawn between this book and Lee’s immortal Mockingbird.  Last Sunday, London’s Guardian and The Wall Street Journal released the first chapter of the book to an eager public (you can read it here), and the results can only be described as collective bewilderment, particularly by those who expected the tone and feel of Watchman to emulate Mockingbird.  Instead, we find an adult Jean Louise (Scout’s real name, apparently), a resident of New York, who is returning home to visit her father, who is crippled by rheumatoid arthritis.  Her brother Jem is dead, and Jean Louise is nearly engaged to her lifelong friend Henry Clinton.  The story is told in the third-person, creating a completely different relationship between the reader and the world of the story.  But the real shock comes from the changes in Atticus.  From what we have been told, gone is the compassionate moral compass of Mockingbird, and in his place is…a very different man indeed.

The original notecard from Harper Lee's agent, noting the progression of Watchman and Mockingbird.
The original notecard from Harper Lee’s agent, noting the progression of Watchman and Mockingbird.

Perhaps because Watchman has been so heavily touted as a ‘sequel’ to Mockingbird that many are finding the premise, and the events of the book, so difficult to digest.  Perhaps it may be helpful to remember (assuming that everything that has come out of Harper Collins’ press department is true) that Watchman actually came first.  When she read the manuscript for Watchman in 1957, Lee’s editor told her to write Mockingbird instead, thinking that the views of a time long past might appeal to readers more than a commentary on contemporary events, and that a child’s view might soften the view of an ongoing debate over civil rights.  The country was convulsed by issues such as the desegregation of school, the rise of the NAACP, and the visceral, often violent indignation of those who feared their own power slipping away, and Mockingbird spoke to those issues without confronting them directly.  What we see in Watchman is a world where the Civil Rights Movement was proving as divisive as it was powerful, and exhausting even the most well-intentioned as wave after wave of protests and marches were met with water cannons, billy clubs, and hatred, a world where generation gaps became gulfs of misunderstanding, hostility, and indignation.

Thinking about Scout/Jean Louise and her world in this light, and considering Mockingbird as a kind of prequel to Watchman, instead of the other way around, makes these two books into a heart-rending, but timely commentary on the cost of idealism, the complicated relationships we have with our own pasts, and the realities of race relations in the United States.  The timing of this publication could not be more timely, or more poignant, and the ongoing debate over the lowering of the Confederate Flag in South Carolina only serves to remind us of how far we have come…and, like Jean Louise herself, how far we have yet to go.


"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." ~Frederick Douglass