Sunday, January 18, 2015

A peek inside the life of Nelle Harper Lee

            Nelle Harper Lee left her hometown of Monroeville, Ala., to pursue a career in writing in New York City, eventually acquiring time to write a novel beginning on Christmas Day 1956, when friends gave her money in order to take a year off from her job. Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird” in both New York and Monroeville and the book was published in 1960 under the name of Harper Lee.
             Nelle, as she is known to family and friends, would never be the same.
            The critical acclaim of the book, the enormous publicity after the book’s publishing and the release of the movie starring Gregory Peck, the invasion of Lee’s privacy and the dissection of her life turned Lee away from public life. She has since spent most of her life living quietly with her sister, Alice Finch Lee, refusing publicity and public appearances except in very few cases.
            Lee was reluctant to speak with Marja Mills of the Chicago Tribune in 2001, but somehow the reporter made friends with the Lee sisters and managed an article. In 2004, with the Lee’s blessing, Mills moved in next door to the sisters’ home in Monroeville and began a rare friendship.
            Mills shares her experiences in Monroeville with the Lees, their friends and other residents of the south Alabama town in “The Mockingbird Next Door: Life With Harper Lee.” The book includes family history — including setting things straight from tales told by Truman Capote, Harper Lee’s childhood friend, — insight into the characters of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, aspects of which were based on family members including Lee herself, and why Lee never wrote another book. More than anything, the biography showcases the deep relationship between Harper and Alice Lee, which lasted years until Alice’s death last year at age 103.

The Left Behinds
            American history can be a tricky subject for young readers, unless you spin an adventurous tale in a modern fashion, preferably in a quirky way. On a Christmas day, author David Potter throws three adolescents back to 1776 where they find Gen. George Washington dead in a horse stable in “The Left Behinds and the iPhone That Saved George Washington.”
            The threesome — known as the Left Behinds because their families couldn’t bring them home from their fancy boarding school for the holidays — first try to understand why they are being chased by Hessians in a land without toilets and smart phones. Then they try to figure out a way back to the 21st century, with help from their teacher who is texting Mel, the narrator of the story, through his iPhone. There’s the question of how texts are being received across centuries and what happened in that dark basement at the re-enactment they were attending back in modern times?
            In the end the unlikely group enlists the help of Benjamin Franklin to recharge their phones and then work to change history to keep Washington alive and crossing the Delaware River, a decisive victory on Christmas Day 1776 that leads to the establishment of the United States.
            Potter’s first book in what looks like a series will entertain readers through the antics of history geek Mel and his sidekicks, Beverly and Brandon, all the while teaching readers a lot about history. It’s a tough challenge but Potter delivers beautifully.

New releases
            Brian Boyles compiles what happened during those 100 days leading up to the 2013 Super Bowl, including the now famous moment when the lights went out in the Superdome, in “New Orleans Boom and Blackout: One Hundred Days in America’s Coolest Hot Spot,” published by The History Press.
            The first edition of UNO Press’s "Death by Pastrami," a collection of 17 stories by Leonard S. Bernstein that take place in New York’s Garment District, has sold out, thanks to Maureen Corrigan raving about it on National Public Radio. Check out the review and get a copy when the next edition hits the streets:
            Southern University coach Roger Cador has published an autobiography titled “Against All Odds” that spans his childhood in Pointe Coupee Parish through his 30 years coaching Jaguar baseball. The book is available on
            Sylvia Rochester just released book three of the “Bawdy Boutique Mysteries” through Whiskey Creek Press, titled “Mellow Yellow Dead Red.” The cozy mystery is set in a small fictitious town south of Hammond where the two main characters, who are into fashion and know nothing about solving murders, somehow wind up in the thick of things.
            Lyn LeJeune writes about the Sonnier family and Abbeville in a Kindle book titled “Each In Its Ordered Place: Cajun Gothic Tales.” 

Cheré Coen is the author of “Forest Hill, Louisiana: A Bloom Town History,” Haunted Lafayette, Louisiana” and “Exploring Cajun Country: A Historic Guide to Acadiana” and co-author of “Magic’s in the Bag: Creating Spellbinding Gris Gris Bags and Sachets.” Write her at