Charles Shields, “Mockingbird,” at VCU Southern Film Festival

2nd Annual VCU Southern Film Festival February 24 – 26

The Grace Street Theater at 934 West Grace Street in the heart of VCU’s Monroe Park campus is the site of the VCU Southern Film Festival.

Lovers of classic films and great works of southern literature are in for a super treat.

The series starts at 6PM on Thursday, February 24th, with a book reading and signing by Charles Shields of “Mockingbird: An Intimate Portrait of Harper Lee.”  This event takes place at one of Richmond’s favorite independent bookstores, Fountain Book Store at 1312 East Cary Street in Richmond’s Historic Shockoe Slip.

On Saturday, February 26th, between 4:30 PM and 5:30 PM, Shields will again sign his book  “Mockingbird: An Intimate Portrait of Harper Lee” but this time at VCU Barnes and Noble at 1111 West Broad, just around the block from the Grace Street Theater.

At 7 PM, the 1962 film “To Kill a Mockingbird” will conclude the festival. Shields will discuss how the screenplay evolved from the novel. Mary Badham, the actress who played Scout, will discuss her experience on the set of the film.

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What do you think of The First Tycoon?

I asked Charles Shields, author Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee and a forthcoming biography of Kurt Vonnegut, what he thought of this year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt, by T.J. Stiles. Here’s his reply:

I read T. J. Stiles’ biography and was disappointed by it. While the prose is soaring and evocative, the Vanderbilt portrayed in the book is an unknowable, ignorant, grasping monster of capitalism. Stiles could have mitigated some of the more repellant aspects of his character by explaining his motives (other than an overweening desire to get rich and rise up the ranks of social classes), and not excused his cruelty, particularly toward his wife whom he locked up in an insane asylum when she protested his having an affair with their children’s nanny.

Our nascent republic gave free rein to men (and women) like Vanderbilt, and they breached the walls of the rich and propertied old order by their “gumption,” “know-how,” “catch-on,” and all the slang words that came to characterize Americans then and now. But without government control and law, they would have stolen their neighbors blind. Vanderbilt certainly did.

I’m not arguing for biographies that are moralistic, but I don’t like ones that figuratively shrug and say, “The ends justified the means.”

I’d be fascinated by a biography of an “ignorant, grasping monster of capitalism.” But a biography of someone who turns out to be “unknowable”? That would be supremely frustrating, if not a complete waste of time. I read biography in order to know someone, or at least know them better. I’ve always been an armchair psychologist, and I want to come away from a life story feeling that I understand where the person came from and how they ended up living the life they lived.

We should be wary of easy answers to these questions — e.g., he was a monster because his father once beat him for giving money to a beggar — but insight into character is the point of biography. Isn’t it? What do you think?

I read T. J. Stiles biography and was disappointed by it. While the prose is soaring and evocative, the Vanderbilt portrayed in the book is an unknowable, ignorant, grasping monster of capitalism. Stiles could have mitigated some of the more repellant aspects of his character by explaining his motives (other than an overweening desire to get rich rise up the ranks of social classes), and not excused his cruelty, particularly toward his wife whom he locked-up in an insane asylum when she protested his having an affair with their children’s nanny.

Our nascent republic gave free rein to men (and women) like Vanderbilt, and they breached the walls of the rich and propertied old order by their “gumption,” “know-how,” “catch-on,” and all the slang words that came to characterize Americans then and now. But without government control and law, they would have stolen their neighbors blind. Vanderbilt certainly did.

I’m not arguing for biographies that are moralistic, but I don’t like ones that figuratively shrug and say, “The ends justified the means.”

Charles Shields on the Importance of Detail in Biography

Charles ShieldsCharles Shields, author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee and a forthcoming biography of Kurt Vonnegut, shared his insights on the use of details in biography at WriterHouse on Tuesday, April 6, 2010.

Listen to his presentation courtesy of the Charlottesville Podcasting Network.

Charles J. Shields spent four years researching and writing Mockingbird. Shields has a B.A. in English and an M.A. in American history from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where he was a James Scholar. He lives in central Virginia with his wife, Guadalupe.

I Am Scout named an ALA Best Book

News from local author Charles Shields:

Barboursville author Charles J. Shields’s biography for young adults, I Am Scout: the Biography of Harper Lee, has been chosen as a 2009 Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association.

Shields is currently writing an adult biography of Kurt Vonnegut (Henry Holt & Co.). They were working together at the time of Vonnegut’s death in April 2007.

Personally, I cannot wait for the Vonnegut bio.

To Kill a Mockingbird film and discussion May 1

From the library:

During March and April the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library invited all readers to enjoy reading To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and then come to a variety of book discussions throughout the region.

The finale of THE BIG READ will be when the 1962 Academy Award winning film, based on the novel, is shown at The Paramount on May 1, which is National Law Day. The film will be shown at 3pm and 7pm. A panel discussion, moderated by Sarah McConnell will follow the 7pm showing. The panel will consist of Commonwealth Attorney Denise Lunsford, City Sheriff Cornelia Johnson, local attorney Stephanie Commander, and Mary Badham, who played Scout in the film.

Visit The Paramount online or call the box office, 434.979.1333, to purchase tickets.

Big Read starts Saturday

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeMarch 1 brings us the kickoff of this year’s Big Read: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.

For more information and resources on the Big Read, see J-MRL’s web site. And of course, I’ll be reading right along with you.

Saturday’s events on the Downtown Mall include the announcement of the winner of J-MRL’s YouTube video contest. I did a little searching on YouTube for the entries. Check this out, yo:

Big Read: Youtube video contest

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper LeeFrom J-MRL:

YOUTUBE VIDEO CONTEST!

All Branches

Now through February 22.

Are you a budding filmmaker? The Big Read is coming up this March and April, and the library is encouraging the community to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Why not help us promote it by making a video? Get your filmmaking friends together and post your video on YouTube with the tag “JMRL_BigRead” by February 22. Winners will receive $300 in gift certificates toward electronic and video equipment, and the video will be aired on the J-MRL website. Look for more details online.

This program is open to kids and teens ages 12-18 who have a J-MRL library card (get one @ your library today – it’s FREE!).