Dyman Associates Publishing Inc. Reviews on Being Mortal: Medicine & What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Atul Gawande, a Boston surgeon explores the issues of aging and death in this book which, among other books dealing with the same subjects, echoes the driving desire for awareness of the human condition in terms of longevity and living a meaningful life.

We all want a long and meaningful life and yet the reality is that sickness and the onset of aging and its debilitating issues ironically and invariably reduces our capacity to achieve the second precondition: enjoying, not just enduring, life to the very end.

But who among the aged or the truly advanced in age have lived to savor life with the same zest or, if not, to a degree proportional to one’s age? For instance, we do not expect the aged to play tennis or to go kayaking as the younger do. But to play pingpong even for a few minutes or to take a leisurely boat ride would do for most elderly people as a worthwhile recreation. Opposed to sitting alone in one’s room or lying for days in bed, such interactive activities would make for a truly meaningful life for old people.

And this is what Gawande hopes to spell out in his book: the challenge of individuals, families and governments to shift the emphasis from merely attaining longevity to that of achieving quality life for the aged. That instead of “infantalising” the old, that is, treating them as delicate and vulnerable infants, we should make them feel they have the freedom and capability to do things within their capacity to perform and to accept the consequences as adults and not as mindless infants. In short, they deserve the respect they have achieved just by living long enough to know what they are willing to embrace and to take on whatever risks they choose to undergo. Some prefer to go out with their boots on; why cannot the old also do so wearing pants or skirts and not pajamas?

The author, in fact, points to the phrase “nursing home” as having an imbalanced priority in the minds of most people, particularly those who run them. The focus seems to be on “nursing”; hence, we have ended up with nothing more than institutions – no, virtual hospitals or prisons – where the aged are not allowed to lead completely normal lives but are literally confined or guarded as sickly or danger-prone people. There is no longer the desire to establish the real “home” which they and all of us deserve to have until we depart from this world.

Even Gawande, whose Indian descent has made him aware of the traditional role of the family as the caregiver of the aged, bursts the idea of that supposedly “better option” for the old. As if the traditional way was more representative of true love and caring for the old. The establishment of hospices and nursing homes in the west has, in a way, helped to sustain society’s concern for the aged, especially those who no longer have a family to support them in their late years. It is not, we are reminded, the institutions themselves that are wanting but the way we have run them and the way we have used them to perpetuate a misconceived attitude toward the old.

The paradox of modern health care then revolves around having reduced or eliminated the deadly diseases; yet, we have not totally solved the effects of aging, per se. In short, it is the ultimate “disease” we have been carrying around like a hefty bank deposit from the time of our birth which we spend as we wish until the time when we will have exhausted it and the great Banker in Heaven calls us for a final accounting. But Gawande’s, unfortunately, book does not deal with the spiritual aspect of aging or dying, only the medical dimension.

While the first part of the book deals with aging and how we can die with self-respect, the second part deals with palliative care (under the supervision of medical practitioners) and how we can die with grace. The author points the proverbial arrogance of doctors who cannot admit defeat in the face of terminal illness. Often, most doctors — and society, in general as well – have only recently recognized not just the need to prolong life but also to allow patients to flourish in life and to experience a “great death”.

We all want a great life; but not many would, as the ancient samurais cherished, to have a “good death”. It can happen in young age or later in life. But in the case of aging, what palliative care can do, which is what it should be good at, is to provide the complete care as well as the environment where the old can re-experience life within the limited or, what we could call the final dimension of living, they have been gifted with.

It seems ironic that the young have the energy yet lack the wisdom to savor life to the brim hwile the old have the wisdom but not the energy to re-experience life. Nevertheless, the old, with a little help from modern medicine, are on the verge of surpassing the young. And with the increasing population of the aged in almost all societies today, we are compelled to look at these issues and their future repercussions as Atul Gawande has done and to derive insights so that we can apply the lessons in our own lives and in the lives of those we care for.

Book Reviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc: ‘Tennessee Williams’ by John Lahr

Book Review: ‘Tennessee Williams’ by John Lahr

This is by far the best book ever written about America’s greatest playwright. John Lahr, the longtime drama critic for the New Yorker, knows his way around Broadway better than anyone. He is a witty and elegant stylist, a scrupulous researcher, a passionate yet canny advocate. But “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh” is not exactly what its title page claims it is—a biography.

The extensive chronology at the back of the book is more or less an admission of this fact. It is only here, for instance, on page 606, that we discover that Thomas Williams (born 1911) attended the Stix School in St. Louis and later the University City High School. In the body of the book, we hear about the psychological effect of the parents on the child but really nothing about his education, his reading, his friends. And when the book comes to focus on key figures in Williams’s career, like his agent Audrey Wood, the director Elia Kazan or his dubious friend Maria St. Just, Mr. Lahr wanders freely among the dates of their exchanges with the playwright. The book is more a study of Williams’s imagination and career than any plodding account of his “life.” Mr. Lahr has decided not to track his subject in sequential detail but to dive into the tumultuous depths of the author’s psyche and the glamorous chaos of his stage productions. He brings us as close to Williams as we are ever likely to get.

Certainly Williams had a traumatic upbringing. His mother, “Miss Edwina,” was a monster: a spoiled, joyless, puritanical, manipulative, frigid dragon who breathed fire on her family, scorching ambitions and circumstances, bitter at the lackluster life that her feckless husband provided her. His father, Cornelius (known as “CC”), took refuge in drink and rage. Young Tom adored his maternal grandfather, a remote parson and, in Williams’s own words, “not the most masculine of men.” He was also devoted to his older sister, Rose, a schizophrenic, who in 1943, at her mother’s insistence, became one of the first patients in America to be given a prefrontal lobotomy, rendering her permanently damaged (though she lived until 1996, 13 years longer than Williams himself). Their younger brother, Dakin, was a hamstrung cipher, unable to make his way with or without his brother. His birth in 1919 led their mother to banish her husband from her bedroom.

In 1939, at the start of his career, Williams changed his name from Thomas to Tennessee and vowed to write plays that were “a picture of my own heart.” Mr. Lahr paints the portrait of that bloody, tortured, triumphant heart, which was, from earliest days, a pawn in the battle between his parents—each instilling in him traits that would often render him helpless, like his neediness and alcoholism. Edwina’s terror of the physical took its toll on her son, who had to overcome a nearly terminal fear of his body and its desires. Williams didn’t masturbate until he was 26. After both his first fumbled heterosexual encounter and a year later his first homosexual one, he vomited.

Mr. Lahr demonstrates how this home life shaped the young author’s psyche. Against the stifling and repressive forces of convention, he posed a romanticized version of himself—especially in his letters, which detail his early erotic longings with a glistening poetic edge—as a free spirit at once volatile and tender, possessed of and by an assertive and redemptive sexuality. And this became the essential pattern of all his work, each play a version of his childhood and adolescent struggle. As compelling an argument as this is, it can seem—and perhaps this is appropriate for a study of the postwar era—too often to look at things with Freudian blinders on.

For instance, when in 1940 Williams was madly in love with his first boyfriend, Kip Kiernan, he wrote from Provincetown to a friend about Kip’s appeal:

The wind blows the door wide open, the gulls are crying. Oh, Christ. I call him baby . . . though when I lie on top of him I feel like I was polishing the Statue of Liberty or something. He is so enormous. A great bronze statue of antique Greece come to life.

Mr. Lahr concludes that “Kip’s large size is associated with the female (the Statue of Liberty); Williams’s smallness places him in the position of an infant with his gargantuan mother.” Admittedly, if Williams had invoked the Chrysler Building, there would have been a different spin, but even so such passages strike me as reductive.

Mr. Lahr makes extensive use of Williams’s letters and journals—all of them well written. Like D.H. Lawrence or F. Scott Fitzgerald, Williams was an instinctively good writer. He was frank, precise and often hysterical in his journal. Here he is in 1949, in Rome, worrying about his literary output even as he is speeding through the cobbled back streets in a red Buick nicknamed “Desiderio”:

There is no point in hiding from the stark fact that the fire is missing in almost everything I try to do right now. Is it Italy? Is it age? Who knows. Perhaps it is just the lack of any more deep need of expression, but I have no satisfactory existence without it. Without it, I have nothing but the animal life that is so routine and weary.

But I wonder how literally he should be taken. People noticed that when he was typing up his plays, he would become the characters, acting out a part as he wrote it. My guess is that he was often trying out emotions and situations as he wrote up his journals and that their tone is sometimes more hyperbolic or martyred than he may actually have felt. But God knows, it was a carnival ride of a life, and at its center was a shrewd, heart-baring artist who stood the theater world on its head. Continue reading…

Book Reviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc: ‘Flight 93’ – The heroism over Somerset on 9/11

Every fall when new students start taking my classes at Point Park University I ask them what they remember about 9/11. Those memories aren’t always clear or accurate anymore; this year’s 18-year-olds were mostly in kindergarten in 2001. Many don’t realize United Airlines Flight 93 crashed 65 miles east of Pittsburgh in Somerset County.

I started taking students to the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville since its dedication in 2011 as a result. We’ve paired that trip with presentations and an annual vigil on campus, something we’ll do again this year.

So when I learned that Tom McMillan, Pittsburgh Penguins vice president of communications, had written a Flight 93 book, I was instantly interested. I contacted him to learn more (full disclosure: I’ve known the author since his Post-Gazette sportswriter days, and he’s an active and involved Point Park alumnus).

A devoted student of history, Mr. McMillan said he had been drawn to the site, visiting it about 20 times before getting a personal tour and becoming a volunteer greeter. Those visits led to his decision to tell as complete an account as possible of the crash, the heroic actions of the 40 crew members and passengers, the investigation, and the memorial’s development.

For two years Mr. McMillan researched books, documentaries, and newspaper and magazine articles; pored over documents, transcripts and flight plans; reviewed the oral histories collected by memorial volunteers; and conducted interviews with 18 family members and officials.

The result: Mr. McMillan created a compelling narrative of the plot’s conception, the terrorist cell formation, pilots’ training — which occurred at Oklahoma and Florida flight schools — and the careful study of U.S. airline security that enabled the 19 hijackers to succeed at striking three targets, killing thousands and wounding a nation.

He developed vivid portraits of the ordinary citizens on board thrust into the role of patriots as they desperately attempted to save their own lives and in doing so spared the U.S. Capitol just 20 minutes away.

I had to put the book down twice — once after his recounting of their heroic insurrection, crafted in chilling detail from the animated flight plan, cockpit voice recorder transcript and the phone calls made from the doomed flight, and again when the descriptions of the grief of those left behind just overwhelmed me.

Of course, much of this has been reported, but as Mr. McMillan notes in his preface, in many pieces. New to many will be the story of Somerset County Coroner Wally Miller, a second-generation funeral home director. He supervised the painstaking scouring of the site for human remains, supported the far-flung family members, organized meetings for them five months after the crash, and spearheaded their successful drive to listen to that cockpit voice recorder.

His humanity and ongoing concern for them, ensuring that part of the memorial become a cemetery for their loved ones’ remains, is evident. Readers will understand completely why the families consider him their hero.

The story of Flight 93 hijacker pilot Ziad Jarrah, an affluent Lebanon native who lived a dual life, also stands out. The aeronautical engineering student fell in love as he moved toward extremism and martyrdom. His return trips to Germany to see his girlfriend worried plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Jarrah called her before he boarded the plane in Newark, N.J., although a letter he sent to her recovered by the FBI professed that she should be proud of him “because it is an honor, and you will see the result, and everybody will be very happy.”

It had bothered Mr. McMillan that when the 9/11 sites are referenced, often this one is referred to as “a field in Somerset County.” His book gives residents, officials and emergency responders the credit they deserve. It covers crash witnesses’ accounts, the assistance given to investigators and the extreme care taken with thousands of items left at the temporary memorial.

From the signs and flags posted by students at Shanksville-Stonycreek School, just three miles from the site, to residents standing along the roadway when family members first traveled there and up to their continuing volunteer efforts at the peaceful memorial site, readers will grasp their significance.

Mr. McMillan calls this book his “labor of love” — he is donating his proceeds from it to the memorial — and it is a fitting continuation of the tributes left there by thousands of visitors. While no account can be definitive for many reasons, his book will help secure Flight 93’s legacy and Somerset County’s place in U.S. history.

Book Reviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc: ‘What Stays in Vegas’ by Adam Tanner

Book Reviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc

If you walk through the doors of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, you’ll find two ways to play the games. You can take cash from your billfold and gamble anonymously until you’ve had enough. Or you can sign up for the casino’s frequent-visitor program, Total Rewards, and get a better deal—in return for allowing Caesars Entertainment to digitally keep track of everything you do.

In “What Stays in Vegas”, Adam Tanner uses Caesars as a case study of how a business can make use of what has become known as Big Data—the analysis of vast amounts of quantitative information in search of useful patterns. The title is unfortunate, because “What Stays in Vegas” has little to do with gambling and even less to do with Vegas: The book is about how corporate America amasses and uses information about its customers. Mr. Tanner’s findings, based on interviews and, in some cases, on Internet detective work, are unpleasant, but don’t bother being alarmed. It’s too late for that. Las Vegas, he writes, is less a sin city than “a vast data collection machine.”

At the center of Mr. Tanner’s narrative is Gary Loveman, a former Harvard Business School professor. In the late 1990s, Mr. Loveman took on a part-time consulting gig training employees of what was then Harrah’s Corp. in customer satisfaction. Shocked by the company’s lack of sophistication, he suggested to Phil Satre, then the company’s chief executive, that Harrah’s use data it was already collecting to build customer loyalty. Mr. Satre responded by making Mr. Loveman his chief operating officer, a heady position for a young academic who had never run much of anything.

Mr. Loveman set to work, not necessarily to his loyal customers’ benefit. In an elevator at Harrah’s in Las Vegas, he met gamblers complaining that the slot machines were too “tight,” paying off less than those at Harrah’s in Atlantic City. Mr. Loveman knew that the opposite was true, that the company kept seven cents of every dollar pumped into the slots in Atlantic City but only a nickel in Vegas. From this chance conversation came the sort of brainstorm by which fortunes are made: If customers don’t know the odds, they probably won’t know when the odds worsen. Today, Caesars Entertainment keeps 8% of its slot machine take in Las Vegas instead of 5%. Those three extra cents on the dollar are pure profit. The gamblers don’t seem to have noticed.

At the center of Caesars’s data-collection effort is Total Rewards. Loyalty programs with rewards for repeat customers go back at least to the 1880s, when the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. gave buyers coupons that could be exchanged for clocks or tableware displayed in its stores. Total Rewards, which began in a rudimentary form in 1997, is a program of a different order. The member offers up his number each time he sits down at a poker table or eats in a restaurant. The details—you spent three hours playing blackjack, never bet more than $50 on a hand and lost $750 in an evening—end up in Caesars’s computers, which crunch them to identify useful patterns. Your reward, at least in theory, is that Caesars will market to you in ways it expects will please you, whether that means having the manager come offer a personal hello when you’re at the roulette wheel or sending you a coupon for a free dinner at the sushi bar, where you dine every time you visit. Behind the scenes, computers are evaluating which rewards are likely to make you want to spend more money. As Mr. Loveman explains: “We should be able to give you things that you care about—not have you littered with things you don’t care about—and have it work out profitably for us.”

Customer relations by algorithm represented a revolution in the casino business. The savvy manager whose instincts led him to offer a free cocktail to a big bettor has been replaced by a computer that reckons that the small bettor who comes every Thursday night is actually more profitable to the casino.

Why does it work? The story of Dan Kostel, a salesman at a Los Angeles asset-management firm, sheds light on that question. Mr. Kostel loves playing blackjack in Las Vegas. He also thinks that Caesars Palace is a bit stodgy. But a few months after he spent an evening there, he received a letter offering a free room and $1,000 in chips on his next visit. The freebies brought him back. Once the computers identified him as a regular, the offers diminished. So Mr. Kostel learned the game. He played elsewhere for a few months, and Caesars Palace upped the offers. He checked into his free room at Caesars even when he was staying in a free room elsewhere, because he would receive more credit toward future rewards if Caesars thought he was staying there while gambling in the hotel’s casino. As Mr. Tanner observed, “for Kostel, winning comps was part of the overall game.” Of course, Caesars knows that if it has evaluated Mr. Kostel’s behavior correctly, it will win in the end.

Not all data collection is so benign. Casino operators collect information about their customers from many other sources beyond loyalty programs; how deeply they probe Facebook FB -0.56% profiles and divorce-court records depends on the operator. Mr. Tanner explores an obscure company called Global Cash Access, which specializes in operating automatic teller machines and cash desks at casinos. If you use its services, it may (for a fee) tell the casino how much cash you withdrew there last month and how much you withdrew at other casinos. This is golden information for a marketer, but gamblers who use the teller machines may not understand that their transactions are far from private.

Mr. Tanner’s engaging book is realistic; he knows that this particular genie cannot be stuffed back in the magic lamp. At the same time, he shows how harmful it is when private companies compile electronic dossiers on their clients. Data collectors, he writes, “should be clear about what they are doing, and customers should have a choice about the extent to which they participate.” It’s a sensible response. But, as “What Stays in Vegas” shows, the collection of personal data is now so widespread that the choice has already been made for us.

Book Reviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc: God Is Dead In This ‘City Of Stairs.’ Several Gods, In Fact

On the Continent, no one is allowed to talk about their gods. No one can display their signs or symbols. They certainly can’t be worshipped. No one is even allowed to know the history of the Divinities who once walked among the people, performing miracles left and right, though scrubbing the memory of such things from a city, a continent and a people is not quite as easy as passing laws that make the dead gods verboten.

Particularly when the dead gods in question might not in fact be, you know, actually dead.

This is the setup for Robert Jackson Bennett’s newest book, City of Stairs. Bulikov, center of Continental government, was once the most prosperous and powerful city in the world. With a direct hotline to the miraculous, the Continent ruled the world — oppressing all others whom the Divinities had ignored. And this went on for a very long time, until one of those oppressed nations figured out a way to do the impossible (or at least the highly improbable): They discovered a weapon that could kill a god. And then they used it.

City of Stairs begins a generation later — in a Bulikov that has been reduced to abject poverty and dependence. When the Divinities were killed (or fled), they took with them all their protections and miracles, leaving the chosen people bereft and floundering in their absence and the small, militaristic island nation of Saypur (the victors in the war) as the new colonial power. There are rules and regulations that suppress all knowledge of the long-gone Divinities, and there are those who chafe under such laws. Thus, conflict — ripe and waiting.

But here’s the thing — City of Stairs is one of those books that’s tough to get into. It opens, rather inexplicably, with the trial of a shopkeeper charged with displaying an illegal symbol on his hat shop. It is a scene most notable for the extraordinary boredom expressed by all the characters involved as they wade through          legal minutiae. They yawn, they doodle, they think to themselves how they can’t wait for this all to be over as Bennett rolls out name after unrecognizable name and explains the framework of the Saypuri legal system (at some length). The boredom of the characters becomes the boredom of the readers and, three times, I put the book down and went off to read something else.

Granted, I also came back, drawn by something about City of Stairs, even in those interminable opening pages, which glittered fitfully beneath the heavy front-load of a chapter-one info dump. It was the shine of a wholly and fully realized world. The hard gleam of competence coming from a writer who knows what he’s doing, where he’s going and just exactly how to get there.

But still, a hat shop? A dozen pages of dull legal proceedings? When the whole opening trial comes to a crashing halt with word that yet another character with a funny name has been found beaten to death in his office, there was an instant when I thought, “Well, lucky him. At least he doesn’t have to sit through any more of this.”

A funny thing happens at that point, though. Bennett the writer exits the premises and Bennett the storyteller enters. Suddenly, we are somewhere different, out on the streets of Bulikov on a foggy night with a train arriving from the east, bearing mysterious visitors. A tiny woman who is probably a spy. Her enormous, one-eyed bodyguard. Suddenly there is tea to be drunk and dull diplomats to be fired. Suddenly City of Stairs starts to read more like Fritz Leiber or a great Rudyard Kipling story of the Raj, and less like the minutes of a Decatur, Ill., city council meeting. Suddenly, the pages are whipping by, 50 at a clip as mysteries are uncovered, miracles happen and assassins begin scaling the walls.

It doesn’t maintain this momentum completely, but Bennett is plainly a writer in love with the world he has built — and with good cause. It’s a great world, original and unique, with a scent and a texture, a sense of deep, bloody history, and a naturally blended magic living in the stones. Wanting to explore its strange corners (and, particularly, wanting to explore it with Shara the Spy and Sigrud the Bodyguard, who’ve got all the modernist magnetism of a post-feminist Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser) was enough to keep me reading through the laggy parts.

I was just thankful that none of the multiple, thread-tying denouements following the primary, action-movie ending took place in a courtroom. And that no one, by the end of the tale, was the least bit concerned with what the hat maker was doing.

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Book Reviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc on the Economist’s review

The Economist’s review of my book reveals how white people still refuse to believe black people about being black

The Guardian (By: Edward E. Baptist) – In 1845, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive from slavery, joined dozens of white passengers on the British ship Cambria in New York harbor. Somewhere out on the Atlantic, the other passengers discovered that the African American activist in their midst had just published a sensational autobiography. They convinced the captain to host a sort of salon, wherein Douglass would tell them his life story. But when the young black man stood up to talk, a group of Southern slaveholders, on their way to Britain for vacation or business or both, confronted him. Every time Douglass said something about what it was like to be enslaved, they shouted him down: Lies! Lies! Slaves were treated well, insisted the slaveholders; after all, they said, the masters remained financially interested in the health of their human “property”.

In a review of my book about slavery and capitalism published the other day, the Economist treated it the same way that the tourist enslavers treated the testimony of Frederick Douglass on that slave-era ship long ago. In doing so, the Economist revealed just how many white people remain reluctant to believe black people about the experience of being black.

Apparently, I shouldn’t have focused my historical research on how some people lived off the uncompensated sweat of their “valuable property”, the magazine’s anonymous reviewer wrote: “Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains.” Worst of all, this book reviewer went on, I had, by putting the testimony of “a few slaves” at the heart of book about slavery, somehow abandoned “objectivity”’ for “advocacy”.

Of course, the reviewer wasn’t treating me like the slaveowners on the Cambria treated Douglass. They threatened to kidnap him and send him to New Orleans – the largest slave market in North America. No, a single nameless reviewer from a single stodgy magazine couldn’t do much to me.

Still, the review enraged a significant number of people. Within a few hours, Twitterstorians scorched the earth of the magazine’s comments page with radioactive reviews of the review. The parodies and viral disdain forced the Economist to retract the review and issue a partial apology.

But the Economist didn’t apologize for dismissing what slaves said about slavery. That kind of arrogance remains part of a wider, more subtle pattern in how black testimony often gets treated – sometimes unknowingly – as less reliable than white. The Economist reviewer was saying that the key sources of my book, African Americans – black people – cannot be believed.

As the historian Jelani Cobb pointed out to MSNBC’s Chris Hayes on Friday night, the reviewer’s ideas about slavery’s history are not actually as uncommon as many of us would like to believe. He’s right: All across the American south, you can go to historic plantation sites still pushing the idea that slaves who had a “good” master were happy, and “faithful”.

If you write about the history of slavery, you become used to the pattern: No matter how many accounts you cite from ex-slaves, people often say they need more information before they can accept what former cotton pickers say about how cotton picking worked. And when we’re talking about contemporary events, the presumptive doubt is just as bad.

For instance: white people have had numerous opportunities, especially after Ferguson, to hear what African Americans think about how policing takes place when white civilians aren’t around. Yet twice as many white Americans as black Americans still think that police treat African Americans fairly.

Perhaps this is because, according to a recent survey, 75% of white Americans have zero black American friends. Surely if more white people knew more black people on a personal level, some would be more ready to accept the accounts from African Americans about how white privilege affects their own lives.

Instead, we’ve still got white magazine writers refusing to believe first-person accounts of history, which re-enforces white privilege at the very time when we should be revoking it. In the meantime, both historians and advocates of contemporary change often have to turn to the strategy of getting white people to vet black testimony before other white people will believe it.

Back in 1845 on the Cambria, as the attackers surrounded Douglass, threatening to throw him overboard, he told the other white passengers that if they didn’t believe his words, he would speak the words of the enslavers. Straight from the book of state law in the south, Douglas read aloud those punishments allotted to slaves, then – “lashings on the back, the cropping of ears and other revolting disfigurements” – as now: “for the most venial crimes, and even frequently when no crime whatever had been committed”.

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Book Reviews Dyman Associates Publishing Inc on the Mockingbird Next Door

The Mockingbird Next Door: Neighbor’s memoir insightful yet gentle

Now that J.D. Salinger is gone, Harper Lee might be the most famous literary recluse in the United States.

In 1960, Lee published the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird, still one of the best-loved American books and required reading in 70 percent of U.S. school systems.

During the same period, she helped Truman Capote research In Cold Blood, started work on another novel and helped publicize the 1962 movie adaptation of Mockingbird (starring Gregory Peck).

By 1965, however, she had stopped appearing publicly and refused to grant interviews. She has never published another book.

So, in 2001, when Chicago Tribune journalist Marja Mills was sent to Lee’s hometown of Monroeville, Ala., to get background on the town and its most famous resident, she wasn’t expecting to meet the author.

To her surprise, when she rang Lee’s doorbell, she was greeted by her older sister, Alice Finch Lee, who at the time was 89 and still practicing law every day. They had a long, comfortable chat, and the next day, Mills was startled to receive a phone call from Alice’s sister, whose full name is Nelle Harper Lee (Nelle to her friends).

“It was as if I had answered the phone and heard: ‘Hello. This is the Wizard of Oz,’  ” Mills writes.

The two sisters and the journalist became close. By 2004, Mills, who suffers from lupus, was experiencing so much pain and fatigue that she could no longer work at the Tribune, and she decided to spend more time in Monroeville researching the Lees.

Alice and Nelle suggested that the owner of the house next door to theirs might be willing to put it up for rent.

Mills moved into the house — complete with a deer head, a stuffed bobcat and another unidentifiable “crouching creature” — and stayed for more than a year.

The Mockingbird Next Door details the time Mills spent with the Lees and their friends, making daily expeditions to feed the ducks, fishing for catfish with hot-dog chunks as bait, going to the Laundromat and drinking coffee in Mills’ kitchen.

In a surprise turn of events this week, however, Lee released a letter claiming that she never authorized Mills to publish anything about her.

The book is as far from an expose as one can get. It’s a respectful and clear-eyed account that sticks to the apparent boundaries that Lee set — which means that, among other things, it records only Lee’s life in Monroeville, not in New York, where she continued to spend several months a year for many years.

Not that it is sugar-coated.

Lee, 88, comes across as prickly, at best, and capable of casual barbed remarks such as one about Capote, her former friend: “Truman was a psychopath, honey.”

Mills counts herself lucky not to have been subjected to the late-night, alcohol-fueled rants that many of Lee’s friends said they have endured.

The book, despite its subject’s complaints, should be a treat for anyone who has longed to get closer to Lee.

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