Sunday, July 22 , 2018, 8:07 pm | Fair 78º

 
 
 
 

Susan Miles Gulbransen: Fannie Flagg Salutes Friend Harper Lee for New Book

My favorite book when teaching high school English a few lifetimes ago was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Whether in the classroom or with friends on a Saturday night, this classic provided a great springboard for discussions on many levels.

Since the novel weaves in topics still newsworthy, it appeals to all ages and interests, gender, race, class, family relationships or lack of, moral commitments and more.

Lee’s only book, To Kill a Mockingbird has racked up more than 40 million sales in 40 different languages, won a long list of awards topped by the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961 and is the second most read book next to the Bible according to a Library of Congress panel. In spite of writing a great American novel, she long ago vowed not to publish another book.

Then the unexpected popped up when one of Lee’s lawyers, Tonja Carter, found a draft of the original manuscript. After glancing through a few pages, she realized that the manuscript was not To Kill a Mockingbird but one about the little girl Scout’s life as an adult. Using the original title, HarperCollins will release Go Set a Watchman on July 14, three days after Mockingbird’s 55th anniversary.

Local author Fannie Flagg (Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion) may be more excited about the publication than Lee herself. Although of different ages, the two grew up in Alabama, Lee in Monroeville and Flagg in nearby Birmingham.

Flagg regards Lee as her mentor and literary hero, ever since their meeting early in her career. The feeling must be reciprocal because Lee broke her reclusive lifestyle and attended the Alabama Writers Symposium in 2012 in a public celebration of Flagg receiving the Harper Lee Award that year.

“I’m thrilled,” Flagg told me in a phone conversation, “and tickled for her at this age. Think of it. She’s 88 years old, has had health problems and her older sister, Alice (Harper’s main lawyer), died recently. Everyone I’ve talked to said she’s pleased. Maybe she can enjoy this.”

When Lee wrote the manuscript in the 1950s, her agent suggested she focus her story on the young Scout. Since Lee was a new writer and wanted to be published, she rewrote the story from Scout’s point of view and re-titled it To Kill a Mockingbird.

“The book was a huge success, but that success so overwhelmed her that she stepped back,”​ Flagg said. “No more interviews, no wish to publish another book. She wasn’t happy with the woman who wrote her biography, either.

“Even though I know her, I refuse to talk to anyone about Harper Lee’s private life.”

When Amazon listed Go Set a Watchman, the novel immediately jumped into the Top 10 in sales five months before its publication date. It is still there.

“This is one of the most thrilling literary news, and God knows we need it,” Flagg said. “My main concern is that she’s happy. One thing for sure, I wouldn’t want my book coming out on July 14!”

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How did actor Michael Keaton get my vote as a No. 1 fan during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival? Santa Barbara’s newest NPR station KCRW sent host Elvis Mitchell for his show, The Treatment, to Santa Barbara to interview Keaton. During the discussion, he mentioned that he liked to read books.

“A few nights ago I went to bed but could only read four lines before falling asleep,” he said. “The next day I realized although only four lines, I still picked up something new. Reading increases your frame of reference. The more I read, the more material I have stored, the more I add to my acting.”

After seeing Birdman, I could see how Keaton uses his vast background. It’s a layered, complicated role, and one he pulls off with excellence.

                                                                  •        •        •

Here’s to literary naysayers: The book is not dead. After four years of steady decline, the sale of print books rose last year.

Neilsen BookScan’s U.S. consumer panel reported that sales had dropped to 591 million copies in 2012 from 778 million copies in 2008. Then last year those figures went up to 635 million.

Were you among those buyers by any chance? My book cover off to you if so.           

                                                                  •        •        •

Do you listen or read better? Each skill has different benefits and the type of book affects those differences, according to columnist Marilyn vos Savant. If you’re into fiction, then the printed page is the way to go. You will better absorb what fiction offers, informational and emotional entertainment.

If nonfiction, listening may offer the biggest bang for your earpieces. We tend to read nonfiction for intellectual and educational purposes. Listening works better for educational purposes and will likely hold your attention longer.

Compare it to reading a professor's lecture or hearing it. Usually the teacher’s delivery is more interesting and captivating.

You didn’t know that about your teachers during all those hours of sitting in a classroom?

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Does the price of books seem to keep climbing? In the realm of pricey literature, the answer is a fat Yes followed by dollar signs.

Forbes magazine listed the top three most expensive rare books. Sixteenth century Codex Leicester by Leonardo da Vinci takes the first spot. Billionaire Bill Gates bought this only copy of the artist’s handwritten notes for $49.4 million in 1994.

Next is The Gospels of Henry the Lion written by the Order of St. Benedict and bought by the German government for $28 million.

David Rubenstein, co-founder and co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, purchased the third costliest rare book, the Magna Carta, written in 1297, for $24.5 million in 2007.

Not all expensive books are centuries old. I rate South: The Endurance Expedition by Ernest Shackleton among my favorite nonfiction books. It’s a great book about superb leadership to save his stranded crew from certain death in Antarctica. An early edition of this 1919 book was last sold for $5,193. Today, you can buy a current copy with the same words for $10 or less.

Now there’s a steal of a deal.

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A teenage girl who is a superior writer will be eight times more likely to escape Alzheimer’s later in life than a teen with poor linguistic skills. That comes from former CNN medical correspondent Jean Carper’s newest book, 100 Simple Things You Can Do to Prevent Alzheimer’s and Age-Related Memory Loss.

You might think this is a book for older people. Not. In it Carper suggests a long list of what we can do at any age, starting with childhood, to make us less vulnerable to one of the scariest diseases of all: dementia.

Carper offers more hints by teaching young children to be fluent in two or more languages and get as much education as they can. The less education, the more prone we are to dementia.

She quotes a University of Cambridge study that claims for each year of education, our risk drops 11 percent. No chance for formal education? Read a book.

All this is to say we need brain stimulation with across-the board-activities: physical, exploring something new and social interaction. They raise your “cognitive reserve,” which protects you against memory decline and Alzheimer’s. Another proof that reading a book is the best medicine.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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